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Originally published January 25, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified January 25, 2008 at 11:43 AM

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Out of retirement, on board with Gates Foundation

Namanga Ngongi was happily retired on his farm in Cameroon when the world's largest foundation came knocking. He was sitting in his village...

Seattle Times business reporter

Namanga Ngongi was happily retired on his farm in Cameroon when the world's largest foundation came knocking.

He was sitting in his village house when he received a call from a headhunting firm that told him he was being looked at for some job in African agriculture.

"I told them to get lost," he recalled.

Later, after several trips to Seattle to meet with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the 62-year-old agronomist said he learned "the place was serious, organized and meant to do some real work.

"The 'no' went to a 'maybe' and led to more question and discussions and became a 'yes.' "

Ngongi is a former government minister and high-ranking United Nations official who once headed the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Congo. He was tapped last year by the Gates and Rockefeller foundations to head their joint initiative to transform African agriculture, known as the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA).

Ngongi works with two former colleagues: former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, now AGRA's chairman, and Catherine Bertini, the former head of the U.N. World Food Program who is now a senior fellow at the Gates Foundation.

The alliance focuses on improving seeds, soil quality, water and irrigation, farmer training and access to markets.

Ngongi said his first challenge is to show some early successes to get more farmers and governments engaged in the project.

"That's a very tall order to energize people who have been disappointed for many, many years now," he said.

The first step was meeting with African and world leaders to identify 13 African countries where improvements in agriculture could have a rapid impact.

"Hopefully there's a climate now of opening up, in which governments, even if they're not able to give a lot of money, at least they're not having policies that hinder," he said.

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The next step is showing farmers what better seeds can do. Different varieties of crops should be tested on "hundreds maybe thousands of little plots around Africa," he said.

"People have to see something, touch it, grow it on a little patch of their land and make a decision to go forward or not," he said.

Irrigation will play a major role, too. To ensure secure food production, Africa has to increase the amount of land irrigated from 7 percent currently to 40 percent, he said.

Without the huge flood plains that facilitated mass irrigation projects in Asia, Africa will have to make use of more modest water-retention techniques and low-cost drip irrigation.

"In Africa we have to pray every day that it will rain at the right time at the right amount," he said.

Another strategy involves using fertilizer to replenish soils. Fertilizer use in Africa is one-tenth of the world average, Ngongi said.

AGRA is working on projects to repackage fertilizer into smaller bags that farmers can afford, and is exploring local production of fertilizer, most of which has to be imported.

Besides support from private foundations, Ngongi also hopes to attract billions of dollars from large funding agencies around the world.

Living up to the expectations of a revolution will take efforts from many partners, he said.

But a revolution shouldn't take decades, he said. "You're not promising farmers they have to wait for 50 years to see an impact."

Kristi Heim: 206-464-2718 or kheim@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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