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How farmer-philanthropist Howard Buffett is planting hope in Africa

May 2, 2016 at 6:30 PM EST
Howard Buffett, son of billionaire Warren Buffett, has an ambitious life goal: ending world hunger. As a farmer and philanthropist, his focus is on reviving African agriculture, which has suffered massive production failures. In collaboration with The Atlantic, Judy Woodruff charts Buffett’s efforts to boost food security for billions.
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HARI SREENIVASAN: But first: Africa has vast agricultural potential, yet, over the past half-century, its per capita food production has declined drastically. In fact, it’s gone from being a net food exporter to now importing much of its food.

The reasons are complex, but they include rapid population growth, political strife and weak institutions.

As part of our ongoing collaboration with The Atlantic, we profile an American farmer and philanthropist who has made it his mission to reverse the trend in Africa.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Howard Buffett is a serious farmer. He is a conservationist, intent on finding better, more sustainable ways to grow food.

And he is a teacher, sharing what he knows with farmers in Africa, giving them tools to better feed their people.

HOWARD G. BUFFETT, Philanthropist: This is all going to take nutrients out of the soil.

JUDY WOODRUFF: He is also a man with a lot of money to spend on making those things happen.

It’s been described that one of your goals or your main goal is ending world hunger.

HOWARD G. BUFFETT: Well, you got to have a goal.

(LAUGHTER)

HOWARD G. BUFFETT: But we’re not going to end world hunger, but, you know, I think every step we can take in that direction is something positive.

Just slam it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You just slam it?

HOWARD G. BUFFETT: Hard. There. You got it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, now, what do you call this machine again?

HOWARD G. BUFFETT: 82-25-R John Deere. It’s a tractor.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Howard Buffett loves his toys.

HOWARD G. BUFFETT: My mom always told me I didn’t have enough Tonka toys when I grew up, so I think I have them now.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mom would be the late Susan Buffett, who died in 2004. And dad, you guessed it, is Warren Buffett, one of the world’s richest men.

You grew up in Nebraska. What was it like? I mean, what do you remember about being in this family?

HOWARD G. BUFFETT: I think people think it was different because of my dad.

And the truth is, when I was growing up, my dad wasn’t well-known at all. We grew up in a very normal environment, went to public schools, walked down to the bus stop and went to school.

JUDY WOODRUFF: At the same time, your dad — because of your dad’s success, you were leading a pretty comfortable upbringing.

HOWARD G. BUFFETT: Oh, we didn’t have to worry about anything. And we were always told that, if we wanted to go to college, it would be paid for, if we wanted to go to medical school, it would be paid for, which is kind of funny, because none of the three of us actually finished college. We all started, but we never quite made it all the way through.

I just had a hard time adjusting in college. So I went out and I bought a bulldozer, and I started building terraces on farm ground and taking out trees and building basements. And it was something I always wanted to do, so I went out and did it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what did that lead to next?

HOWARD G. BUFFETT: Well, ultimately, it led to the fact that I’m sitting here, because I had some experiences with neighbors who are farmers and who let me get involved in some of the fieldwork and some of the things that they did.

And I really fell in love with farming.

We have a total of 4,500 acres.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Buffet’s Illinois farms can produce more than 8,000 tons of corn and soybeans in a year. But they’re also living laboratories, part of research funded by the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, to improve agriculture both here and overseas.

HOWARD G. BUFFETT: So, what we have in this field, the first thing I want to point out is all the cornstalks from last year.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Right.

HOWARD G. BUFFETT: We do no tillage in this field, zero.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Why not?

HOWARD G. BUFFETT: Because it helps build soil health. You save fuel, because you only make one pass over this field, instead of maybe three or four.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, but you just let the stalks rot; is that basically it?

HOWARD G. BUFFETT: Yes, exactly.

So, if you pull this out, you see the earthworm right here, and the earthworm right there?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Oh, my gosh, yes, right there.

HOWARD G. BUFFETT: OK?

So, any gardener will tell you this. Worms are the best thing you can have. But if I take that shovel and I go to dig up a shovel worth of soil across the road, where they have tilled it year after year, finding these earthworms, it’s pretty unlikely.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The Howard G. Buffett foundation plans to give away an estimated $4 billion over the next 30 years, most of the money coming from shares of Berkshire Hathaway, the company founded by the senior Mr. Buffett.

HOWARD G. BUFFETT: My dad gave us this great opportunity with the foundation, and it was natural for me to look at smallholder farmers and see, well, how do we improve agriculture, and how do we make it so the farmers feed their families better?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Howard Buffett has immersed himself on the African continent as few other philanthropists have.

HOWARD G. BUFFETT: My dad has said, go out and don’t try to hit the ball out of the park every time, but don’t be scared to swing. And swing means you’re going to miss, and it means that you’re going to fail some of the times.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The foundation has invested heavily in the strife-ridden Democratic Republic of Congo.

HOWARD G. BUFFETT: We’re building three hydro plants in Eastern Congo. And we started the first one in 2012-2013, in the middle of very intense conflict, with the M23 and the Congolese government.

And we had the site. When we started, it was shelled by RPGs and everything else.

CALESTOUS JUMA, Harvard University: The Democratic Republic of the Congo is an area where not many donors are interested in operating. And so he’s taking very high risks in going to those areas.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Harvard Professor Calestous Juma says Buffett’s willingness to take those risks has brought him respect across the continent.

CALESTOUS JUMA: He’s visited all the African countries. He’s looked at what happens, what’s happening on the ground. He is a farmer himself.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Most other foundations wouldn’t dare go into a country where there’s that level of conflict, where that — where you could see fighting break out.

HOWARD G. BUFFETT: To me, those are the people who need the most help.

I mean, you’re looking at the most devastated populations. You’re looking at devastated infrastructure, no governance, no rule of law. If you want to talk about helping the most impoverished populations, you’re talking about going to where conflict is. There’s no doubt about that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Yet one of Buffett’s most ambitious projects is in one of Africa’s currently most peaceful nations, Rwanda, where the foundation will spend half-a-billion dollars, principally to train young Rwandan farmers.

HOWARD G. BUFFETT: You would have young adults graduating with four-year degrees in agricultural processing and plant science, and things that today they don’t really have access to.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And why is that important? Why does it matter?

HOWARD G. BUFFETT: Well, if you want to advance agriculture, I mean, look at what we did in this country. The university system is what built our agriculture into a powerhouse originally.

CALESTOUS JUMA: Historically, African agriculture was considered to be something that peasants did, therefore, didn’t require training.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Back in Illinois, we see yet another aspect of the farmer-philanthropist, Auxiliary Deputy Sheriff Howard Buffett. For the past four years, he’s volunteered for a job it’s safe to say few other foundation heads have held.

HOWARD G. BUFFETT: The one thing that I have gotten out of being an auxiliary sheriff, deputy sheriff, is seeing a whole underside of this country that I had no idea existed.

I mean, the poverty, the domestic abuse, the substance abuse, the attitude of people about a lot of things, I mean, I have been — it’s hard to surprise me, but I have been surprised at some of the things I have experienced and seen as a deputy sheriff.

SHERIFF TOM SCHNEIDER, Macon County, Illinois: Howard Buffett is probably more prepared than a lot of other younger deputies coming on.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Macon County Sheriff Tom Schneider sings his praises.

SHERIFF TOM SCHNEIDER: The amount of hours that he has put in with deputies, it is — basically surpasses everybody else. He goes through training on a daily basis, and he’s always educating himself to see how he can perform at a higher level.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, here you are, somebody who’s seen the world, who’s seen a lot, and yet this is something that only in the last few years you have been able to witness up close.

HOWARD G. BUFFETT: I have witnessed in a way that a civilian, a normal citizen wouldn’t be able to witness it.

You see it every single day. And you’re making decisions about how to deal with it, which makes it very real.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, my question is, then how do you decide, where’s your greater passion? Because you clearly have that great passion to make changes in a place like Rwanda, but you also — you also clearly have a passion here.

HOWARD G. BUFFETT: Your first obligation is always at home. I mean, you can’t ever walk away from the responsibilities that you have at home. But I also think we have a huge responsibility internationally, because we are a leader. And we need to maintain that leadership.

And so, for me, I don’t see that — you can’t separate them. They’re both critical. But you cannot — you can never walk away from your responsibilities at home.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Does it bother you that you’re known to so many people as Warren Buffett’s son?

HOWARD G. BUFFETT: Never bothered me ever, never, no. I don’t think about it that way. I feel like I’m doing what I can do.

And the truth is, I’m able to do so many things because of my dad that I couldn’t do otherwise. He’s been an amazing father.

CALESTOUS JUMA: Howard Buffett is someone who has brought his own personal experience and integrity to probably one of the world’s largest and critical challenges, which is being able to generate food security for a billion people.

And I think that takes incredible courage and commitment to be able to do something of that kind.

TOM SCHNEIDER: Here, within the last week, he was out with an officer that had did an arrest, and the individual was cold. He offered up his coat to that individual, so that they would be warm. The individual said, “Boo-fay.”

And he goes, “Yes, some people say that — well, or Buffett, like Warren Buffett.”

And he goes, “Yes, Yes, I have heard of him.”

And the individual sits back and goes, “Well, you kind of look like him.”

“Yes, I have heard that.”

Never once did they even realize that it was Howard Buffett, his son.

(LAUGHTER)

HARI SREENIVASAN: We want to note that BNSF Railway, an underwriter of this broadcast, is owned by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway. That connection had no impact on the reporting of this story.

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