Knowledge is Power: An Unexpected Funder Puts In Big for Agricultural Education

Costa Rica’s temperate climate and fertile soil lend themselves well to agricultural production. Indeed, agriculture was big business for many decades, but the sector itself has been in a steady decline since the 1950s. Regardless, approximately 6 to 9 percent of the country’s GDP and 14 to 15 percent of its workforce depend on agriculture. But here’s the problem: Many of the industry’s current standard operating procedures are seriously threatening the future of farming in Costa Rica.

The Costa Rican government has had an eye on problem even before then-president José Maria Figueres committed to implementing sustainable agricultural practices in the mid-1990s. One of the ways it tackled the problem was hooking up with USAID and the Kellogg Foundation to establish the Escuela de Agricultura de la Region Tropical Humeda, or EARTH University.

Since 1990, EARTH University has been dedicated to teaching and preparing young people from Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa and Asia how to “contribute to the sustainable development of their countries.” And ever since around 1995, the Kellogg Foundation has made over 30 grants—some substantial—to the University’s Foudation, but none of those past grants have come even close to its latest pledge.

The W.K. Kellogg Foundation has announced that it's committing $40 million to support an endowed fund to help the university strengthen its capacity and “ensure agricultural higher education opportunities for economically disadvantaged youth.” This is a significant contribution for Kellogg, which, up until now, had made its largest donation of $10 million to the EARTH University Foundation in 2007. The 83-year term of the $40 million commitment is also noteworthy.

Kellogg’s dive into the deep end of the grantmaking pool in Latin America is surprising. Over the past couple of decades, it hasn’t made any grants that even come close to $40 million to benefit the regions specifically. But that’s no matter, now. Kellogg, along with a few other funders, are on to something.

The push for sustainable agricultural practices isn’t new, in Latin America or anywhere else in the world. Economists, environmentalists, agriculturalists and much of the global development community are keenly aware of the benefits of sustainable farming. The over-exploitation of natural resources through agricultural methods of old, like slash-and-burn farming or clear-cutting, have long since fallen out of favor, but they still occur. How do you change minds and attitudes of those who subscribe to such practices?

One answer is education. But it's no small feat to teach the next generation of Latin American farmers methods to produce food that minimizes waste, conserves natural resources, fosters biodiversity, prevents significant soil depletion, and keeps toxic chemicals out of the land, water and air.

And Kellogg isn’t the only funder that’s on board with EARTH University’s ethos.

In 2012, The MasterCard Foundation and EARTH University entered into a seven-year, $19.5 million partnership to create a scholarship program aimed at young people from poor communities in Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean. The partnership is offering scholarships to 120 students who will take part in the university’s “innovative four-year program in sustainable agriculture, natural resource management, and community development.” The goal, here, is for the students to return to their communities upon completion of the program and become leaders in the transformation of their local agricultural sectors.   

EARTH University and its foundation are getting a decent lift from other funders outside of Kellogg and MasterCard.

According to Foundation Center’s most recent data, the Earth University Foundation—which was created to “support the education vision” of the university—has received nearly $5 million in support from the Cummins Foundation and close to $3 million from the Open Society Foundations. Other contributors include the Margaret A. Cargill Foundation, which has awarded over $400,000 in grants to the EARTH University Foundation since 2010 and the Michigan-based Wege Foundation has given the foundation more than $450,000 since 2003.