By Ann Millington
CIUDAD OBREGON, Mexico – To Howard Buffett, manager of the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, a private charity funding projects and research on food security, water security and conflict mitigation, failure is just as important as success. To Buffett, with failure comes learning.
“Our money has to be the risk capital,” Buffett said when discussing private foundations with Sir Gordon Conway, a faculty member at the Centre for Environmental Policy at Imperial College London and discussion leader at a Borlaug 100 session. “One of the biggest challenges in philanthropies today is people don’t want to take risks as a private foundation.”
Funding for projects that may not see short-term results have become risks, and they don’t bode well with stakeholders and annual reports, he said. Innovation takes a back seat.
Along with this philosophy on risks, Buffett believes that there are key years for these opportunities.
“You get about 40 prime years to go out and make a difference in the world,” Buffett said. “The only way to you can get success is trying innovative things; things that are out of the box and may not work. Borlaug would probably tell you hundreds of failures he had,” Buffett said.
Buffett believes in giving people enough freedom to fail and then protecting them if they do. However, if research isn’t applicable on the farm, ‘then go home.’
“If it doesn’t help other farmers at the end of the day all you’re doing is spending time and money,” Buffett said.
Many argue that research which provided innovations in technology and machinery in successful agricultural areas like the United States cannot be used in places that need yield improvements most, like Africa. And Buffett partially agrees – large machinery will do them no good. But, Buffett points out that the United States did not start with large-scale machinery.
“If used in the correct context and in an appropriate manor, machinery is a tool and it is a good thing. There are tools (for African countries) that will do things to help them,” Buffett said.
The first tool needed in Africa, according to Buffett, is leadership.
“If you’re missing the fundamental foundation of the government then you’re not going to get agricultural (results) long term. Many governments don’t appreciate farmers,” Buffett said.
However, Buffett argues that if we don’t take care of the foundation of soil that all the machines and technology were created for, no matter what, “we lose in the long run,” Buffett said.
“We have to save our soils, water systems, ecosystems – everything that grows comes from a natural environment, and if we destroy that environment we will have nothing left,” Buffett said.
Buffett takes upon himself the challenges of food and water security, along with conflict mitigation and protecting the environment. Each of these challenges are daunting.
“Why, in this world with all these problems, are you an optimist?” Conway said.
“If you’re not going to be part of the change you’re part of the problem. You can’t walk away and say, ‘I’m doing nothing,” Buffett said. I’m very fortunate to have a lot of financial resources to do something about it. As we get some things wrong, we learn how to do more things right in the long run.”