When she speaks, the world listens. Melinda French Gates is one of the most powerful advocates for women and girls in the world and co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has, over the last 10 years, spent at least $10 billion to benefit sub-Saharan Africa. In an exclusive Zoom interview with FORBES AFRICA, she speaks about the 2022 Goalkeepers report, on female economic power, building food systems and the bright future of young people on the continent.
Q. Your foundation has just released the Goalkeepers 2022 Report: The Future Of Progress that tracks the progress of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). There’s data and diligence, but seven years in, how are we doing? Has anything changed?
A. These goals were set because they’re ambitious. We were making substantial progress on a number of them before the pandemic hit. But I’m sorry to say that since the pandemic, it has set back every single goal that was set. That’s how devastating
this pandemic has been. So we need to take that in as a world and say ‘that’s a setback, but also what’s possible’. And I think one of the things that still makes us hopeful as a foundation is we see the incredible progress that was made before: the deaths of children under five going down, malaria going down, and more people on HIV/AIDS treatments than ever before. And we believe that we can make progress again. But as a world, we’ve got to invest now, because unless we do, you’re going to see millions of people who do not get their livelihoods back or do not reach their full potential because of the devastating impacts.
Q. You visited Africa in June, your first visit post-pandemic. What were your learnings in the rural parts? What were the innovations you saw on the ground, in particular, from young people?
A. The cell phone! In some places, it’s the smartphone, in some places, a plastic phone…I am seeing that when women get cash put in their digital accounts, it changes their economic power. For instance, in Niger, when women got that money on their phone, they were 70% more likely to go to the market, they bought 15% more grain. So we’re seeing the protection of having it on their phone – somebody doesn’t take it, their husband doesn’t use it for something else. That’s an innovation we didn’t have 15 years ago in this development space. I’m also seeing young people have great ideas for business. I met a young woman in Senegal who started a company with her female business partner, and they’re collecting rubber tires from around the city that used to collect water and breed mosquitoes. They’re crushing them, selling them to cement factories, they’re using them so that the rubber goes under the pitch of the football field. And they’ve got orders from all over the continent now, they can’t keep up. So we’re seeing like in Senegal, 31% of businesses are being created by women, but they only have less than three and a half percent of access to capital. So we need to open capital up to women, so they have it in the informal sector but also the formal sector. I see this incredible ingenuity and potential, but we’ve got to do the right things to unlock it.
Q. In your report, you say gender equality depends on women having power, not just empowerment. Can you elaborate?
A. Having economic power means you have resources in your hand, wherever they come from – the informal sector or formal sector – but you have them in your hands in a way that’s specific for you, and you get to spend them the way you think is right. Often, women know the right thing to do is to spend it on more food for their family, or buy a bicycle for the child who needs it to get transported to school. When you can make a decision about your own resources and you have them, that’s economic power. And women spend their resources differently. We need to make sure that women are supported in the right ways to have digital money at their disposal.
Q. …And also supported in terms of caregiving infrastructure, which brings me to the question of childcare and about Africa lagging in terms of quality healthcare for women. We’ve had telemedicine and all the new technology coming up during the pandemic, but in your home visits to the rural areas, what did you see?
A. Women are demanding healthcare, they know they need it. They’re saying, ‘I have to walk so many kilometers to get even decent healthcare, I get there and the supplies aren’t there’. Again, an innovation that I saw in Rwanda was a company called Babyl, where women can call in on their cell phone and ask questions. There’s a whole symptom tracker; they talk to a nurse, they talk to a doctor. Young girls are calling
in and asking about their sexual and reproductive health
and where they can access contraceptives, so that privacy is an innovation that takes some of the pressure off the health system… because some of that can be handled over the phone… we’re seeing innovations there that can help. And then you’re absolutely right on the caregiving side, I see it
in my own country, and I see it across Africa. I met several, many impressive female scientists in Senegal, and they’re saying ‘I could only get my doctorate degree because there was a childcare solution available to me, or the place that I’m working, I’m demanding childcare on site’. We have to solve the childcare crisis. If we want women to work, and they want to work, they have to have a safe and affordable place to put their children.
Q. In the US, what’s the buzz around African ingenuity and innovation at the moment?
A. I think we need to remind people there’s this vibrancy in Africa, and we are seeing it in the cultural space, in the music, people are being exposed to it and there are amazing African artists. We need to remind people what stimulates business
– having access to capital. We haven’t solved that in the US yet; there is access to capital for men, but women still in the US have trouble accessing capital. As we open that up, we need to remind people that in emerging markets, in low- and middle-income countries across the continent of Africa, there are amazing ideas, and we need to have access to capital there too. Again, in Senegal, I met a woman who had started an accounting business, she sold it to one of the Big 8 accounting firms. And she’d started a women’s investment club. And she was not only teaching women how to start a business, she was making sure they had access to capital. I’ve seen the same thing in other places like Kenya; those are all ways we can start to see that entrepreneurial spirit that people already have, and make sure their businesses get funded and started.
Q. It is an unfortunate reality that there is a lot of gender bias in the investment landscape in Africa. How do you think industry, the private sector, the business world, the billionaires of Africa, need to start thinking differently to channel those investments to purposes that are very imperative not just for Africa, but for the world?
A. I think as we now finally have data and are collecting data about women, people are waking up. Presidents, prime ministers and heads of companies who are starting to realize that ‘I sell more product if I have women at the creative table creating products that benefit everybody, and not just males in society’. So we have to make sure they all come together and start to see that their business is going to be better off. We actually know we can grow the economy by trillions of dollars if you bring women into the formal sector, right? The only way is to make sure they have a solution for their childcare needs. As a world, we expect women to care for the children. But unless they have safe and affordable childcare, they can’t take that great accounting job, that great tech job, and they can’t work in media. So we got to have that solution for them if we’re going to draw them in. And in the informal sector, there are so many things we can do to make sure they have access to credit, to make sure that women are seen and are on registers. Having data on women’s lives is imperative. And it’s something we can all contribute to.
Q. In the Goalkeepers report, Bill Gates writes about the war in Ukraine and that there should be investments in agriculture R&D. This is where climate change also enters. And it is the largest threat to food production, especially in Africa. What kind of innovation or innovative thinking is needed to address the current food crisis?
A. There absolutely is a food crisis, the hunger is just growing across the continent. That’s because 14 African countries rely on wheat from Ukraine and Russia to feed the population. What do we need to do? We absolutely have to give humanitarian aid to people going hungry today, and of the people going hungry, 150 million of them are women who are food-insecure; of all the people who are food-insecure, three out of five are women. We have to address the humanitarian crisis, and we’ve got to build the food systems. There are seeds that are drought-resistant, that are flood-resistant, seeds that deal with crop problems and being able to predict that, using those innovations and [to make sure] they reach not just male farmers, but also female farmers; 50% of the farmers are also women, if you get this whole system working right, Africa can actually feed itself. And it’s completely possible.
Q. What excites you most about Africa today, what is the future of the continent for you?
A. It’s seeing young people say ‘I not only want to reach my full potential, I can and here’s how I’m going to do it’. There’s this entrepreneurial spirit that exists. I see it in Nigeria, Senegal, Kenya, South Africa…when you start to see these businesses created for the economy, and the young people are also thinking about climate change early. And they want to do it for their generation and for those who have come before them. Human ingenuity is what’s going to lift up the continent. And when you pair that with the innovations that they have, and the ideas, you can see an incredible amount of lift coming for the continent from them.
Q. You have young daughters as well. What do you tell them about having a voice?
A. I tell all three of my children – two daughters and a son – use your voice, use your education, use your intelligence to give something back to the world and lift someone else up. My youngest daughter is 19. She spent three weeks in Rwanda. I was there for part of the time with her. She saw the most remote parts of the Rwandan health system, and says ‘how do I get my generation in the US focused on these issues on the continent, how do we make sure my generation sees what I am lucky enough to see in my travels, and that we do something about it’. I talk to all three of my children about using their voice, and using their generation to help lift up everybody.
Q. If you were to wear a businesswoman’s hat, what is the advice you would give young African female women entrepreneurs coming up? What are the qualities that they should have?
A. You have a lot of potential and ideas; do not let anyone tell
you that you can’t live your dream. When you’re a young female entrepreneur, even in my own country, or in Africa, you have a lot of people who will put your idea down or say ‘that won’t sell or I’m not going to fund you’; you’re going to hit barriers, women hit far more barriers than men do. Keep going, your ideas are worth it, and you’re going to find people who are there to support you.
Q. When are you coming next to Africa?
A. Sometime in 2023. I need to get to Southeast Asia at the end of 2022. But I certainly will be back on the continent. I love being there, any chance I get, and I missed being on the continent during the pandemic.
Q. Any one country here you are really looking forward to that you’ve not visited?
A. That would be like picking your favorite child. I think I’ve been to maybe 30 African countries. I’m always trying to go to a new one just so I make sure I’m going around in different regions. But then I like to revisit certain African countries too because I want to see the progress and what’s possible. So we’ll see.
Q. You earlier mentioned culture, do you follow African music, and the art scene here?
A. I do. And of course, YouTube makes that incredibly easy. But then when I was in Senegal, I actually got to meet with some of the young female designers who are making new fabrics and some of the artists and it’s just amazing to see the vibrancy that’s there and how they’re trying to support the rest of West Africa. So I love that!