Kicking off the discussion, Donald Summers invited Grow Further chair Peter Kelly to share how the idea for Grow Further first came about. Kelly said it all originated from a college assignment where he read about international food security organizations and wrote up some observations. It was at that time that he noticed a gap.
“My primary observation was that there were some organizations that made great contributions to food security, and there were other organizations where there were clear ways to get involved, but they weren’t the same ones,” Kelly said. “So, I thought someday I’m going to change this.”
Two weeks ago, Grow Further proudly announced the recipients of our very first grants in support of smallholder agricultural innovation, the culmination of months of application reviews following our first call for proposals.
Last week, we joined the World Food Prize Foundation’s Borlaug Dialogue conference in Des Moines, arguably the premier conference on global food security. At the gathering, we set up a Grow Further booth with detailed posters on our work, and distributed written information to several hundred attendees, from students to foundation leaders to an aide to the vice president of Nigeria who wants to set up a Nigerian American chapter. We displayed a bottle of Bambara groundnut milk, which caught the eye of, among others, 2007 World Food Prize laureate Dr. Philip Nelson, who commented that the packaging was his invention.
The highlight of our visit to Des Moines was the panel discussion we hosted on October 25. The talk featured our founder and CEO Peter Kelly, Cornell University Professor and Grow Further donor-member Kathleen Hefferon, and Dr. Ruth Oniang’o, an Africa Food Prize laureate and one of Grow Further’s advisory committee members. Donald Summers, founder of Altruist Partners and a Grow Further consultant who helped get us to where we are today, moderated the discussion.
The affair opened with a video showcasing the Nelson Mandela African Institution of Science and Technology and Kelly’s time visiting the NM-AIST campus in Arusha, Tanzania. A research team there led by Dr. Neema Mduma is one of the recipients of our first grants. The video introduction helped set the stage, providing a sort of primer for the audience on what Grow Further is and what kinds of partners we are seeking in our quest to leverage individual donations with corporate and foundation support in service of small-scale agriculture science and innovation.
But much of the discussion was more personal. Kelly explained how he earned a Ph.D. in agricultural economics, and then landed a tenure-track job as an economics professor. Ultimately, he decided to revisit that dream of his that first arose during his undergraduate years. He described the market research he undertook before ultimately launching Grow Further, which ranged from focus groups with the public to discussing the idea with Bill Gates Sr.
“I spoke with, among others, a Buddhist crop scientist who said ‘This is really a great idea. There’s nothing like this out there. We’re having huge trouble getting the kinds of grants that this organization would provide’.” The scientist described the idea as a ticket to nirvana as well as a better second life in the event of being reincarnated as a smallholder farmer.
Next, our first-ever grantees were invited to share their projects with the Borlaug Dialogue audience.
Dr. Neema Mduma of NM-AIST explained her team’s research project from her office in Arusha via Zoom. Their work involves developing a smartphone app that can help farmers spot the earliest signs of crop diseases or pest attacks. Though the technology is driven in part by machine learning, Mduma’s team knows that success entails rolling out a technological solution that is easy to use and affordable for smallholder farmers to use.
Next, Mr. Alhassan Nuhu Jinbaani and his team at the CSIR-Savanna Agricultural Research Institute explained their work on the Bambara groundnut. Also speaking via Zoom from his office in Tamale, Ghana, Jinbaani explained to the Borlaug Dialogue audience how his team aims to develop and market the first commercial variety of this hardy but underutilized crop. Jinbaani welcomed Kelly to CSIR-SARI’s base in northern Ghana during the first Grow Further due diligence trip.
Continuing the discussion, Donald asked Dr. Oniang’o to describe how she first became acquainted with Grow Further.
“When I learned about Grow Further—I think someone connected Dr. Kelly and I, I forget who that was—and we started talking, at the time the idea came up…it was clear that they wanted to do things differently,” Oniang’o recalled.
She told the audience that the concept of Grow Further appealed to her for the way it focused at the ground level—the level of the smallholder farmer, engaging them in this discussion just as actively as we engage and encourage the participation of our donor-members. She said the role Grow Further has to play is a welcome one given the ongoing food security challenges the world is facing.
“Because I’ve been around for so many centuries,” Oniang’o quipped, “I can say that we still have food issues. We still have hunger. And even in the same Africa we now have noncommunicable diseases.” Oniang’o went on to describe how difficult it is to find and keep a financial partner to help improve smallholder agriculture, even when you meet them at conferences like the Borlaug Dialogue. “I’m sure there is a lot of money,” she said. “I just don’t see where it is going right now.”
Kathleen Hefferon, a Cornell University professor and donor-member, described how she became involved.
“I have a long-standing interest in global food and security and have spent a lot of my research time working on that very topic,” she said. Aside from researching and teaching microbiology at the university, Hefferon shared that she is also an entrepreneur and has been developing new technology to help improve the food security situation in the world.
Donald kept the discussion flowing.
He asked panel members to discuss their ideas on how to scale up the type of research and development work Grow Further is and will be funding while still keeping the focus on the ground. He asked whether there are strategies for commercializing the discoveries that may be uncovered by research into smallholder agriculture innovation. Donald inquired about the pathways for for-profit companies to get involved. He also invited the audience members to chip in and share their thoughts and reflections.
One audience member said he thought this was the beginning of something big. Donald concurred. “While this is a small beginning we’re certainly at the right place,” he said. “We have the right expertise.”
But it was perhaps Dr. Oniang’o who said it best at the close of the wide-ranging discussion. Her reaction to Grow Further’s coming-out party at the Borlaug Dialogue?
“You’ve planted a seed.”
— Grow Further
Photo credit: Pictures from the World Food Prize Foundation’s annual Borlaug Dialogue event by Rimple Nahata, Jennifer Dine, and Iquo Essien.