What worries Bill Gates most? The booming population of Africa looms over his foundation’s latest global survey. By the end of this century there will be 4 billion more people on Earth – and 3 billion of these extra souls will be born in Africa. The challenge, he says, is that “Africa must almost quadruple its agricultural productivity to feed itself. That’s very daunting.”
The philanthropist is torn between sending out a message of hope and a message of fear when I meet him at his foundation’s spacious campus in the heart of his hometown, Seattle.
He is reaching for what works best to revive the west’s faltering conscience in the face of “America first” nationalism and rising pull-up-the-drawbridge populism in Europe. The spirit of generosity is under assault as government aid budgets come under constant sniper fire from right-wing politicians and their media.
Half of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation spending goes to Africa. The funds put into the foundation by themselves and fellow philanthropist Warren Buffett now amount to more than than $50bn (£38bn). Until last year Gates, the Microsoft founder, was the world’s richest man. He has now been overtaken by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos.
Gates’ first instinct is optimism. Just consider the astonishing story of how far and how fast people have been brought out of abject poverty in a very short time. Since 2000, a billion people have been taken well over the line of $1.90-a-day wretchedness (£1.45), with the same uplift among those previously living on $3.20 a day.
Since 2000 three waves of poverty reduction, centred on China, India and now sub-Saharan Africa, have lifted more than a billion people out of the extreme poverty