Microsoft founder Bill Gates

American billionaire Bill Gates has found a meeting of the minds in Dr Joseph Ndunguru, a plant scientist who once turned down offers to a well paying job in South Africa, and preferred instead to conduct research at home that would connect state-of-the-art science with the needs of his people.

The two men – one the world’s richest, and the other largely unheard of even at home  – have one parallel thread in common: to make a difference in a world of extreme wealth and abject poverty, an apparent contradiction in terms, but one for which simple solutions to people in need could be ‘magical.’

This is revealed in the 2012 Annual Letter from Bill Gates highlighting the global work of the Melinda and Bill Gates Foundation that singles out the exemplary dedication of one Tanzanian scientist to his country and his determination to use his knowledge locally while applying global perspectives to improve the lot of his people.

Renowned for his edge cutting ‘innovation’ as the key to improving lives among the poor worldwide, Gates talks in great detail about his experience in Tanzania last year (2011), in which he particularly singles out Dr Ndunguru and a peasant woman farming cassava at Mapinga Village in Coast Region’s Bagamoyo district – all in relation to groundbreaking agricultural research.

“When I was in Tanzania meeting Christina Mwinjipe, I also met Dr Joseph Ndunguru, a plant scientist leading a project to fight the mosaic and brown streak diseases that are attacking Christina’s cassava crop.   “Dr Ndunguru is part of a new generation of African scientists building up the capacity to do innovative science in Africa. Dr Ndunguru was offered a high-paying job in South Africa, but he chose to keep working for the Tanzanian national programme.

“I asked him why, and he replied that the work he was doing with the national programme was the best way he could connect state-of-the-art science with the needs of the local farmers,” Bill Gates recalls. Dr Ndunguru may not be a household name in Tanzania but his selfless dedication to serving his people so moved the American billionaire-philanthropist that he invited the Tanzania scientist over for a one-on-one meeting in Seattle, the world’s tech capital.

Dr Joseph Ndunguru researches crop samples in his laboratory (Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, 2012).   Says Gates: “When I talk about innovation, it can be abstract for some people. But the direct link between the challenges Christina faces when her crop is destroyed and the solutions that Dr Ndunguru is working on every day makes it very concrete.   “Disease-resistant cassava is an answer to Christina’s prayers, and I look forward to the day when Dr Ndunguru’s work is done and I can go back to Tanzania and see Christina’s field thick with healthy cassava plants.

“That is why I say that innovation has been and will continue to be the key to improving the world. Kudos to Dr Ndunguru on employing innovation to answer our farmers’ problems.”  Bill Gates stresses that the world faces a clear choice: to invest or not to invest in poor farmers.  “My annual letter this year is an argument for making the choice to keep on helping extremely poor people build self-sufficiency.”   “If we invest relatively modest amounts, many poor farmers will be able to feed their families.

If we don’t, one in seven people will continue living needlessly on the edge of starvation,” the letter warns. Bill Gates also argues that while he and his wife, Melinda, recognise the ‘great job’ done by the private sector, they are nonetheless quick to qualify that agribusiness is “particularly for people who have money.” However, their Foundation was set up specifically to “encourage innovation in the areas where there is less profit opportunity but where the impact for those in need is very high.”

Bill Gates has said he will give 95 per cent of his wealth to charities. Though almost half the world apart, Bill Gates and Dr Ndunguru have found a mutual ‘partner’ in Christina Mwinjipe, a peasant farmer whom Mr Gates met at Mapinga Village, in rural Bagamoyo last year. The woman supports her family by farming cassava, a staple food that feeds more than 500 million people worldwide every day. “We do all these things with one goal in mind – helping people like Christina Mwinjipe … boost their productivity while preserving the land for future generations,” Bill Gates recalls.

To this, a $2bn fund has been established to finance innovations in many areas, ranging from sustainable land management, to better ways to educate farmers, and connecting them to functioning markets. However, Christina’s crop has suffered from two viral diseases over the two years:  cassava mosaic and brown streak diseases; the leaves of some of her plants are curled and withered, and covered with white flies that carry the mosaic virus.

“The roots of other plants are rotted by brown streak disease … because of these diseases, she is depleting her savings to buy cassava to feed her three children,” Mr Gates says. Dr Ndunguru holds a PhD in plant virology from the University of Pretoria in South Africa, and is currently Principal Research Officer at the Department of Disease Management at the Mikocheni Agricultural Research Institute (MARI) in Dar es Salaam.

He is also the principal investigator of a Rockefeller Foundation-funded project, “Cassava genetic transformation for the longevity of cassava virus resistance in Tanzania” as well as coordinating a regional project, “Enhancing capacity of national cassava research programmes to diagnose, characterise, monitor and sustainably manage viruses affecting cassava productivity,” which is implemented in Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Malawi, Mozambique and Zambia.

By JAMES MPINGA, Tanzania Daily News



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.