Vicki Wilde, Senior Program Officer at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, will be speaking at Food Tank’s Inaugural Seattle Summit, “Growing Food Policy,” which will be held on March 17, 2018 in partnership with the Environmental Working Group, Food Action, Garden-Raised Bounty, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Seattle University’s Center for Environmental Justice and Sustainability.
As a senior program officer in agricultural development at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Vicki Wilde is responsible for the women’s economic empowerment portfolio. In this role, she works with public and private partners to ensure equal opportunities for women in the agricultural sector to boost productivity, improve nutrition, and uplift millions of impoverished farming households through women’s economic empowerment in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. Before joining the Gates Foundation, Wilde worked on behalf of the United Nations agencies for food and agriculture engaging with small farmers in Africa and Asia. Additionally, Wilde had been selected to establish the Gender & Diversity Program for the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) and is also the Founder and Executive Director of African Women in Agricultural Research and Development (AWARD), an organization that aims to strengthen support for African women as leaders to achieve more inclusive, agriculture-driven prosperity.
Food Tank spoke with Wilde to discuss her inspirations, current work, and hopes for future food system policies.
Food Tank (FT): What originally inspired you to get involved in your work?
Vicki Wilde (VW): In the1980s, I was serving as a legislative aide in the U.S. House of Representatives. While working there, I learned that the decisions made in Washington, D.C. affect the lives of women worldwide without their input. Even as a young aide, it struck me as wrong that these women’s voices were missing from the equation. Since most women are reliant on agriculture for their livelihoods, that is where I decided to place my focus. At which point, I began a two-week contract with the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) to write a brochure on Women in Development. I spent the next thirty years focused on smallholder farmers and women’s leadership, particularly in Africa. The more time I spent with African women in agriculture, the more inspired I became.
FT: How are you helping to build a better food system?
VW: Agriculture is one of the Gates Foundation’s largest initiatives. Our goal is to support countries in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia that are committed to transforming their agriculture sectors to support smallholder farmers while ensuring they are receiving adequate pay for their work to produce nutritious food. To achieve this goal, we provide countries with the necessary support to ensure productivity of smallholder farms and their access to lucrative markets that will purchase the surplus of crops and livestock. Our work includes investing in scientific research to develop new agricultural innovations that target smallholder farmers. We also strive to make sure women have access to the same technology, inputs, land, and support as men.
This past year has been particularly exciting for the Gates Foundation as we built our first strategy for women’s economic empowerment (WEE), led by our Gender Equality team. Our strategy focuses on women’s financial inclusion, market inclusion, secure land tenure, and self-help groups.
FT: What’s the most pressing issue in food and agriculture that you would like to see solved?
VW: Inequality. The interconnection between poverty and inequality affect women and girl’s health and development. We believe gender equality is a means to lift households out of poverty. The lives of women and girls are undervalued, which is at the core of every problem the Foundation seeks to address. As a result, the solution to these problems is to empower women, which benefits everyone.
On average, women’s empowerment scores across countries show that women are twice as disempowered as men. Solving these inequities requires a shift in the current approach to policymaking. Policies and programs need to become better attuned to the issues that undermine women farmer’s economic opportunities, and better designed to meet their needs. Women’s access to productive assets also needs to be prioritized. Moreover, since our overarching goal is to see large-scale change that increase women’s incomes and their control of that income, we need to leverage the most dynamic force available, the marketplace. Solving for women’s market inclusion requires a dedicated approach to increasing their participation and their value capture in society.
FT: What innovations in food and agriculture are you most excited about?
VW: I am most excited about our investments that support integrated approaches to women’s empowerment, in partnership with governments as well as the private sector. Through the maize commodity exchange, for example, women now tap into national futures markets as well as local spot markets. Through corporate tie-ins, women’s produce is now sold to Indigo Airlines, Big Basket supermarkets, and other businesses. As a result, women’s incomes are increasing, as are their negotiation power and leadership skills. Importantly, women now have their own bank accounts and receive payments digitally within 3 days of sale, and enjoy the benefits of digital price transparency. Before this program, women were losing a large share of the value of their produce to local traders and sometimes waited months for payment.
FT: What is one small change every person can make in their daily lives to make a big difference?
VW: Everyone can and should ask how we can ensure that women and men will benefit equitably.
FT: How can we make food policy more relevant to eaters so that the politicians representing them feel a mandate to act?
VW: Everyone deserves an opportunity to live a productive, healthy life, and that starts with nutritious and enjoyable food. Every culture shares a love of sharing a healthy meal. When access to nutritious food is threatened, the foundation of families, communities, and cultures are simultaneously threatened.
FT: What policy areas or ideas would you like to see an increased focus on as the 2018 Farm Bill negotiations kick off?
VW: The United States has an incredible history of agriculture innovation. While the private sector plays a big role in food production in the U.S., public commitments to basic research have always been the key to successes on the farm. We hope discussions around the Farm Bill will reflect on what the United States’ investments in agriculture research bring to the U.S. and the rest of the world. We also hope that women will have an equitable voice in the development of Farm Bill policies and programs.