Valerie Bemo: Breakthroughs in African agric require collaboration

valerie-bemo-half-body Valerie Bemo (MD, MPH) is a native of Cameroon. She is a senior program officer in the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Global Development Special Initiatives. Before joining the Foundation, she held various roles at the International Rescue Committee, most recently serving as senior technical advisor for health in the Democratic Republic of Congo and West Africa. She also worked with various NGOs and had extensive involvement in Aceh, Indonesia, Côte d’Ivoire, Sierra Leone, Mauritania, Kenya, and Chad. Dr Bemo received her medical degree from the University of Côte d’Ivoire, her epidemiology diploma from the University of Paris, and her MPH from Madrid Autonome University.

Tell us about yourself.
Born in Cameroon and educated in Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, France, and Spain, I have spent the last 15 years working on community development at the district and national level in Africa, Asia, and Europe. My professional and personal time is devoted to various organizations that impact health and development on a global scale.

Please describe your work at the Foundation. What are your goals?
My role as a Senior Regional Adviser (SRA) for West Africa is to help the Foundation’s Agricultural Development team to establish and maintain relationships with key stakeholders that would lead to a greater impact of the Foundation’s investments in the region. Our initial countries are Mali, Ghana, Burkina Faso, and Nigeria. The work involves:
• Ground-truthing country context and developing country strategy
• Providing a voice from the region to the foundation’s Seattle headquarters
• Building partnership and understanding donor/partner context and landscape
• Providing social and cultural context
• Enhancing impact by influencing and shaping investments in coordination with foundation stakeholders.

What new agricultural initiatives is the Foundation undertaking in West Africa & Central Africa?
The Agricultural Development team at the Foundation has restructured their strategy. Our priority is for small-scale farmers and rural economies to thrive. We are now using a value chain approach, focusing on productivity improvements and the reduction of postharvest losses in specific staple crops and livestock, working closely with the governments of these countries and engaging stakeholders to get a complete sense of their agricultural work and plans. We are especially keen to work in areas that overlap with our strategy to achieve maximum leverage and address any major gaps that are impeding sustainable productivity growth in these value chains.

What are some of your challenges at work? What are the exciting highlights?
One of the key challenges to our involvement in the region is security. Violence and civil unrest, and unpredictability surrounding policies/politics in the region slow our momentum and disrupt plans.

The major highlight we have seen so far is that governments and existing players in the region are very welcoming. They are very willing to work with us and in most cases they see us not just as donors, but as thought partners.

Dr Valerie Bemo on a mission in Makindu. Photo from Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Dr Valerie Bemo on a mission in Makindu. Photo from Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
What are some successful initiatives in agriculture and development in the region and their impacts?
It will take time to dramatically improve the productivity of small-scale farmers in the region, and it is too early for us to claim success in our own investments. This will require initiatives and collaboration from stakeholders. For instance, we believe that strong market incentives and a vibrant private sector involvement in agriculture are two very important factors for agriculture to thrive. The ultimate impact is to lift as many people out of poverty as possible, so focusing on the needs of the poorest farm families is also necessary.

As a partner, how would you describe the collaboration with IITA?
The partnership with IITA has been very good. With IITA’s work in some of the same priority crops and value chains, this collaboration may become even stronger. We are optimistic that our collaboration in the context of our new strategy will bring good results in Nigeria, and in the region as a whole.

What are some of the areas that IITA should focus more?
IITA priorities have been set out in the context of the reform of the international agricultural research centers, and we support that reform and those priorities.

How important is partnership in the African context? How could the collaboration among the various stakeholders be more effective?
Collaboration among all stakeholders in Africa will be very crucial for Africa to be able to tap into the incredible potential and increased agricultural productivity.

Any major breakthroughs in agriculture in the region will require collaboration from upstream research and development, to downstream adoption and scaling. It will require governments working with farmers, research institutions, private sector players and NGOs. Every group has the potential for making an important contribution, and a great variety of skills and resources are needed. We are optimistic that these critical players will achieve a new level of collaboration and sharing, leading to more efficiency and effectiveness.

What is your dream for African agriculture and development?
My dream for Africa is to see Africans leading the strategies and efforts to reduce poverty and to see the population, especially women and children, have access to basic health, education, clean drinking water and to be able to feed themselves. These will ultimately lead the people of Africa to having healthy and productive lives.

I fully share the Foundation’s “impatient optimist” vision for African agriculture development, that is to see productivity for 30 million farming households increase by 170% by 2030, with the ultimate goal of a 40% reduction in the $1/day poverty rate in the region. It is a big goal that will require not just our effort but that of all the major stakeholders, including IITA.