“No one will starve to save a tree.” Those words were a revelation for Howard Buffett, the farmer and philanthropist. For years, Buffett, 54, had expended much of his charitable efforts in Africa toward conservation. As a resident of South Africa and co-owner of the agriculture equipment maker GSI Group, he tried to save cheetahs and gorillas. But when he heard that sentence from a friend, Buffett realized that even his worthiest causes were futile in the face of mass starvation. When people don’t have anything to eat, they don’t worry about preserving the environment.
Buffett is one of the philanthropy world’s most restless thinkers.
Since then, Buffett has thrown himself into feeding people. As an Illinois soybean and corn farmer—a far cry from the life of his investor father, Warren—it was a natural role. Buffett’s foundation spends more than $30 million each year in Africa on programs from agriculture to water management. He has worked to develop a fungus-resistant sweet potato and drought-resistant maize. He has traveled to regions like the Huambo Province, in Angola, where a woman thrust her baby into his arms and begged him to take it so that it wouldn’t die. Reached near his Illinois farm, Buffett says, “You can’t walk away from 12,000 people in Huambo Province and say, ‘I’m going to do nothing.’ And you can’t walk away from it and forget about this mother.”
It is in that same curious vein that Buffett asks whether the Green Revolution, the agricultural transformation that had so much success in India and Mexico in the last century, is really the right plan for Africa. What about the African farmers he has seen that plants six crops so they’ll have something to eat when five of them die of disease? “The first rule is always: Do no harm,” Buffett says. “Well, the fastest way to do harm to an African farmer is to take away his diversity.”