Foundation series

Inside the Howard G. Buffett Foundation’s Big Bet on Rwanda

I’m standing on a college campus that’s being built from the ground up on 3,200 acres of farmland in central Rwanda, an African country of 13 million people that’s about the size of Vermont .

Dorms and a large outdoor dining hall have already been completed, but many other constructions are still underway, including a dairy “enterprise” which will house cows and milking machines, poultry and pig centers where students will learn to raise chickens and pigs, and a building where students will learn how to make high-value agricultural products from fruits and vegetables.

I am shown around the new Rwanda Institute of Conservation Agriculture (RICA) by Richard Ferguson, vice-chancellor of the school. Ferguson spent most of his career teaching at the University of Nebraska, where his research focused on soil science, among other subjects. But he turned his life upside down a few years ago to move with his wife to Rwanda to oversee the creation of RICA – an opportunity, he said, that “I couldn’t turn down”.

The school aims to be Rwanda’s flagship agricultural university, training a new generation of leaders for a sector that employs 70% of the country’s workers and accounts for almost a third of its GDP.

RICA, which admitted its first class of 84 students in 2019, is being built on land donated by the Rwandan government. But the cost of building the school, as well as its operating budget for the first 10 years, is covered by the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, the philanthropy headed by Warren Buffett’s eldest son. The total price is expected to be around $175 million, making RICA the largest investment ever made by the foundation.

This is not the only large-scale business in Rwanda of Buffett and his small team, led by Ann Kelly Bolten. They also funded the Nasho Irrigation Cooperative (NAICO), which cost over $50 million and led to huge agricultural yield gains for 2,100 smallholder farmers in the drought-prone eastern region of Rwanda.

In an interview, Buffett called RICA and NAICO “the best investments we’ve ever made.”

Buffett first announced his large-scale involvement in Rwandan agriculture in 2015. Since then, news has been scarce about what he is doing in the country. Although he donated $222 million last year, his foundation remains low-key and does not seek media coverage. But the scale of its investment in Rwanda is striking, amounting to one of the most ambitious big bets on global development by any donor today. This work is led by an exceptionally active funder and made possible by a close partnership with the Rwandan government.

I recently visited Rwanda on vacation, primarily to see the mountain gorillas, and thought to check with the foundation before I left. This email led me to a visit to RCIA and to discover the long history behind the Buffett Foundation’s high-stakes involvement in Rwanda.

“Farmer first”

Long before Howard G. Buffett became a major philanthropist, helping to provide one of the largest fortunes in the world, he was a farmer.

Buffett started farming in his twenties, after dropping out of college and looking for purpose. With initial help from his father, Buffett purchased a farm in Nebraska, and over time he would farm 1,500 acres in central Illinois. “I consider myself a farmer first and foremost,” he wrote in his 2014 book, “Forty Chances.” “I’m never happier than when I’m sitting in a tractor or a combine during planting or harvesting season.”

But Buffett also had other passions. He became an avid world traveler and wildlife photographer. And in 1999, he began to engage in philanthropy after his parents gave each of their three children $26 million to set up individual foundations.

Wildlife conservation was an early focus of Buffett’s donations. He bought a piece of land in South Africa to set up, among other activities, a habitat and a research center for cheetahs. Traveling through Africa, he came to see a strong connection between hunger and conservation. Threats to wildlife are driven by extreme poverty in many parts of the world, as people turn to poaching and deforestation to survive. As he would later write, “If I cared about endangered species, if I cared about habitat preservation and biodiversity, I realized I had to shift my efforts to something more fundamental. I had to work the hunger side of the equation.

This epiphany led Buffett to focus his foundation on food safety. In 2006, this work received a huge boost when his father began making annual payments of Berkshire Hathaway stock to each of his children’s foundations, as well as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Year after year, the Howard G. Buffett Foundation has put almost all of this wealth to work as soon as it arrived. In addition to food security, it currently provides grants for conflict mitigation and public safety.

The foundation works across Central America – it is one of the few major funders prioritizing this critical region – as well as in Colombia and the United States. But it’s Africa that has most captured Buffett’s imagination over the years. He has been to every country on the continent and tells me he has funded projects in 44 of those countries. Today, however, most of the foundation’s work in Africa focuses on Rwanda.

Beyond RICA and NAICO, the foundation has funded a number of other major initiatives here over the past few years. It spent $17 million in 2014 to rebuild a border crossing between Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to facilitate trade between the two countries, which often have strained relations. It has also invested over $30 million for several ecotourism-related projects, including grants to help bring rhinos to Akagera National Park. In total, the foundation’s commitments to Rwanda since 2000 total $435 million, most of which has been allocated since 2013.

A place to make a difference

Buffett has bet everything on Rwanda because it is the only place in Africa where he is confident he can have a large-scale impact. His involvement in the country dates back to 1998, just years after its devastating genocide, when he funded efforts to protect the mountain gorillas that live in Volcanoes National Park. “Our initial investments were in conservation,” he told me.

Later, Buffett’s work on conflict mitigation in the war-torn DRC led him to develop a relationship with Rwandan President Paul Kagame. Buffett was impressed with Kagame, an autocratic leader who has been in office since 2000 and spearheaded a remarkable renaissance in a country that had been decimated by mass murder and civil war. Kagame cracked down on corruption and showed himself to be a results-oriented manager. The country’s poverty rate has fallen sharply in two decades, while social indicators have risen alongside economic growth.

Buffett told me that Kagame had a remarkable ability to get things done, catalyzing change on multiple fronts. “I haven’t seen a country develop on the continent the way Rwanda has developed,” he said. It’s no surprise that Kagame’s charging style appeals to Buffett, who is known for his own intensity and impatience. In a preface to “Forty Chances,” his father wrote of Howard, “His only speed is fast forward.”