Taking the business view of how to tackle world hunger
Condon (right) with Bill Gates and Dirk Niebel, German federal minister for economic cooperation and development. PHOTOGRAPHS: BMZ/JAN ZAPPER
"A lot of people allowed the Irish bubble to happen but not everyone benefited, but everyone got hurt when it burst," says Liam Condon. PHOTOGRAPHS: BMZ/JAN ZAPPER
Business Interview:There is a growing view in world capitals that the old charity model is outdated, says Irishman Liam Condon, the chief executive of Bayer CropScience
Taoiseach Enda Kenny was not the only Irishman Bill Gates met on his recent trip to Europe. After Dublin and Davos, the Microsoft founder and billionaire philanthropist had a date in Berlin. One of his hosts: Navan Road native Liam Condon, the chief executive of Bayer CropScience.
The agricultural division of the German multinational, with annual sales of €7.2 billion, is one of 35 companies that has joined forces with Berlin’s federal development ministry (BMZ) to tackle the global scourge of hunger that affects two billion worldwide.
These German efforts at pooling resources and knowledge have now garnered global attention thanks to the imprimatur of the Bill Melinda Gates Foundation, an organisation known for matching generosity with demanding standards.
After their Berlin meeting, Gates announced he would contribute €20 million to match German government funding to the campaign, while Condon presented a €40 million funding commitment on behalf of the industry-supported “German Food Partnership”.
“German aid investments and private sector partnerships have helped fund many successful programmes, helping lift millions out of hunger and poverty,” said Gates at the press conference alongside Condon and German federal development minister, Dirk Niebel. “By setting clear goals, such as a global productivity target in agriculture, we can continue to deliver real progress and save lives.”
Condon says recognition from the US foundation is an important step in pushing forward both the German food project and the wider notion of public-private partnerships as the best way forward.
“The Bill Melinda Gates Foundation is not a normal charity; it is run like a professional business and they set very high standards, which keeps up the pace for everybody,” he says approvingly.
“They insist on measuring success and they tailor their approach to things that are proven to be working. They don’t give money and pull back. They test how approach is working and decide based on results.”
Condon speaks the same language as Gates. To tackle world hunger effectively, he says, companies, states and civil society need to stop ploughing their own furrows and embrace public-private partnerships.
But is an approach familiar for building motorways suitable for tackling global development questions such as world hunger?
“Food security and poverty are issues so big that no government, no company or group of companies is big enough to tackle alone,” argues Condon.
Two months ago, he took the helm of Bayer CropScience, which describes itself as an “innovative crop science company”, operating in 120 countries with a workforce of 21,000.
Bayer CropScience develops and markets so-called “high value seed” offerings, with built-in crop protection – thanks to both breeding and genetic modification as well as biological and chemical crop protection.
So what is Bayer’s interest in world hunger? While cynics might see a corporation anxious to tap a new market, Condon disagrees. Every company should have some form of societal responsibility, he says, and should contribute to the society in which it operates. Bayer’s interest, though not selfless, he says, is not entirely selfish either.
“There is no sense that this is going to lead to any short-term increases in profitability, so ultimately we would see this as a long-term investment,” he says. “If we are helping pull people out of poverty, that generates more income for society and eventually this will benefit our business as well.”
Acting as a corporate wolf in charitable clothing would not be credible for another reason, he argues, as there is a growing view in world capitals that the old charity model is outdated. Thus, he says, Germany’s new initiative to fight world hunger is not charity “in the classic sense”.
“It is about long-term investment that needs to be run professionally,” he says. “What is clear is the state needs to play a key role in terms of governance, to make sure right rules are in place, that things getting done in the right way.”
Already the German Food Partnership, in which Bayer is involved, is rolling out a rice initiative in Asia that has seen up to 24 per cent higher yields for farmers, boosting their incomes by up to a third.