Monthly Archives: April 2015

The Money Maker

Water is the liquid of life. We cannot live without. It is a life giver and a life saver – and yet we increasingly hear talk a water crunch. Increased global populations and demand from agriculture already mean that some people around the world are now facing water shortages and many people feel in the future we will all be living in a much thirstier world.

Although the problem is now most keenly felt in the poorer places in the world, I’ve headed off to one of the richest – where exists the rather trendy headquarters of a company which is trying to help those in most need.

Martin Fisher is the CEO of Kickstart. He spent decades in Africa working on community projects –many involved improving access to fresh water.

Standing in his New York office, what I am looking at – is rather like a heavy metal version of a gym Stairmaster workout kit. It is a bit of simple tech – using a tried and tested reciprocating pump valve that relies on suction and pressure – powered by humans.

The KickStarter

Its purpose is to help farmers irrigate their land. One person does the work out on the foot operated pump – the other takes the hose. The more you walk, the more water you pump.

It looks simple and indeed I was surprised this isn’t part of the basic agricultural tools many farmers must already have. But even today in many poorer parts of the world, traditional agriculture still relies on regular rain during the one or two rainy seasons. If it doesn’t rain – the food doesn’t grow.

When you can only grow food when it rains – there’s an economic problem as well as an agricultural one.

When all of the farmers pick their crops at once, the market becomes flooded with produce during certain months and as a result at the very time farmers have something to sell – the over supply of produce forces prices down.

It’s a painful Catch 22. When prices are high – farmers have nothing to sell and when they are low farmers have too much produce.

Seasonal farming can leave communities stuck in a cycle of poverty and hunger.

KickStart introduced human powered pumps for irrigation in 1997 to address this problem. The pumps are sold for between US$35 and US$100. KickStart estimates that farmers using irrigation during dry seasons increase their annual incomes by over US$1000. It’s why they’ve called their foot pump – The Money Maker.

As I hear the trucks of New York delivering produce to warehouses, as we hear planes fly overhead and as we sip on coffees which no doubt would cost more than the average weekly wage of many of those we are talking to – the simple bit of kit in front of us looks rather unimpressive.

But KickStart estimates that its irrigation pumps have brought over US$100 million to rural communities throughout the developing world. They believe this is helping solve not just a water issue, but it’s alleviating hunger and helping economies at the same time.

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Howard Buffett, The Helicopter & The New Sheriff

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The change from London to the wide plains and big country of Arizona is so marked that despite being late we couldn’t resist stopping the car and filming the early morning sun break into the mist across the farmlands of Wilcox.

This is a land of big skies, big landscapes and big personalities.

By the end of the day I was to have grabbed, by the neck, one of the world’s wealthiest men to stop him falling out of a helicopter, been given a sheriffs badge for Cochise County and tracked through the drug runs along the Mexican boarder in search of signs of drug cartels and illegal immigrants.

But it was still only 7:30 in the morning and I was heading to meet one of the biggest men in town, indeed perhaps one of the most influential men in the world. He is a leading member of one of the richest families in the world and personally runs a programme dedicated to changing the world’s ability to feed itself. To make it successful he is using billions of dollars of his own family’s money.

Howard Buffett is the son of Warren, who is regularly referred to as the world’s most successful investor. Apart from his wealth and huge success, what marks him out his down to earth approach to investment and life in general. He still lives in a relatively modest family home and is often filmed at public occasions playing his ukulele.

His son, Howard Buffett has been named as the next chairman of the Buffett investment group, Berkshire Hathaway. Howard is no dilettante son of the rich and famous.

In 2005, Howard received the Will Owen Jones Distinguished Journalist of the Year Award, and in 2007, he was appointed a United Nations Goodwill Ambassador Against Hunger on behalf of the World Food Programme. He was awarded the Triumph of Agriculture Exposition Agri Award, the World Ecology Award, and the George McGovern Leadership Award. In 2012, he was awarded the National Farmers Union Meritorious Service to Humanity Award, the Columbia University Global Leadership Award, and an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from Pennsylvania State University.

On the plane over from the UK I had read his book ‘40 Chances: Finding Hope in a Hungry World.’ About the lessons he learned from farmers around the world in how to overcome food poverty and insecurity.

As we headed off the main road, the landscape dipped and we drove from bright sunlight into a well of thick fog. We were looking for

Apache Farm, where we were told Howard was expecting us. In the end the farm had to send out drivers to find us and we followed them down winding paths to the farm itself and a low building where Howard was waiting.

Despite his control of hundreds of millions of dollars, Howard looks like any other farmer you might meet here. He is as short as I am and his trousers were even shorter. The room we met in was covered with photos he had taken on his trips around the world.

As the crew discussed where to set up filming opportunities, Howard discussed his photographic career with me. It has taken him to some wild and dangerous places.

Straw

Today we were starting with something very tame. The director had us sit on two large straw bales in the middle of the farm, since both of us are fairly short, it meant our feet dangled off the side like some naughty school children waiting outside before our parents would let us back into the house.

Howard talks passionately about the need to develop techniques, which would enable countries to fee their population. He is using his farm in Arizona to test different methods, which he thinks may help design a better farming strategy for many countries.

What struck me most, was his not his discussion of farming techniques but his analysis of what has been wrong with the way we have approached aid in general.

You might build a hospital in a country, he says, but then you find it hasn’t got enough medical supplies. So you ship in some medicine only to discover it hasn’t got enough doctors and nurses to administer the medicine. You keep trying to fix bits of the jigsaw, throwing a million dollars here at the problem and a million dollars there – very large sums of money but never enough to finish the jigsaw. As a result, he says, you help individuals but never fix the problem. What you realise is that the country doesn’t just need the hospital it needs roads to get steady supplies of medicine moved to where they are needed, a college to supply doctors and a structure on which all parts of the picture can hang.

So his next project is not to provide small answers but to see if he can provide a much bigger kind of solution. He is taking $500 million of his own family’s money and going to spend it in one place – to see if a concentration of spending can provide a fix where previous philanthropy has failed. The country he is spending it in is Rwanda. The goal is to invest in knowledge and production techniques to improve agriculture potential at scale. It’s a long term project but one which could have major implications for the way we approach aid.

Having explained some of his foreign ambitions, Howard was keen to show me the work on another of his farms, near the Mexican boarder. We jump in a helicopter with the local sheriff, a great guy who for some reason was on the ride with us.

We slide the right hand door of the helicopter and fix it open so we can get some good shots flying across the wide plains of Arizona and Howard and I get in on the left.

Flying south, I suddenly feel the helicopter veer sharply and the door on Howard’s side flings open. The pilot turns round trying to shout to Howard some instructions about how to get the door closed. I grabbed Howard by the collar trying to ensure he didn’t fall out. The pilot is now flying forward but looking behind him to check Howard is fine.

Because the pilot is no longer looking where he is flying, the Sheriff starts talking urgently to the pilot explaining that we are about to fly into Mexican territory. We are in an area where the Sheriff thinks some drug runners may be preparing a journey across the boarder. Not only would it be politically difficult for a member of the US security force to cross into Mexico uninvited, the drug runners, the sheriff said, might believe we were chasing them and start shooting at us. You look straight and let Adam and Howard deal with the door, he kept saying.

In fact Howard seemed to be the only one who was unconcerned with the whole thing. Eventually he managed to get a grip on the door and fighting the wind, got it closed again.

We landed on the US side of the boarder a short way from the wall the US had built to keep illegal immigrants out. I had heard of the wall but imagined something a lot more impressive. This seemed low enough to climb over with the use a ladder and indeed I was told drug runners don’t even bother with that, they just drive at it with a large truck and break through.

Seen from above, the landscape looks fairly flat. But when you land you can see there are lots of wide gulley’s that cut into the land. They are wide enough to drive a 4-wheel drive through and once you are at the bottom you are effectively hidden from anyone standing on the plains.

Howard and the sheriff took us through the gully’s and showed us where drug runners would make their way into the US along with groups of illegal immigrants. They leave signs for each other by tying cloths to tree branches and there were plenty of signs of people who seemed to have been there only recently.

We sat on a bolder along one of the routes and Howard talked about the problems of the poor and disposed not just in Africa and Asia but the people who live little more than a stone’s throw from the most successful advanced economy in the world.

Even with the Buffett Billions, Howard knows he can’t solve this problem. But he does believe that the money he and his family can bring to bear on the issue, might shine a light on a different route that might start on the plains of Arizona but could end up on farms in Africa and Asia and across the developing world.

We climbed back in our helicopter and on the way to Apache Farm we dropped the sheriff off – “Keep the blades turning” he shouted and dashed out to his office. Returning moments later he brought me a Cochise county sheriff’s badge and two sheriff epaulets. The helicopter was loud and it was difficult to hear what he said – but as he handed me my badge I imagine he said “This makes an honorary sheriff.” Perhaps he didn’t say that, perhaps I just wished he did. Either way, I do have the badge. So when you are next in Arizona and in need of help – just ask for Sheriff Shaw.

Sherriff

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Richard Branson and The Expensive Hotel Room

Did you know that Richard Branson’s middle names are: Charles Nicholas? No neither did I. But it is a measure of just how famous he is that I feel that must be the only things I don’t know about him.

Branson holds a place in our national consciousness not because he is famous or because he is rich or because he is a gung-ho entrepreneur with his own island – but because he is all those things and yet seems to still be the sort of guy who would be perfectly happy to sit with you with a cup of tea and chat abut what was on TV last night.

What is remarkable about him is that he appears to be normal and unusual at the same time.

We are used to politicians wanting to grab the limelight and commenting on anything and everything but business leaders are much more reticent. Although arguably the leader of an international business has more influence than the average MP, we usually know little about these men and women of commerce.

There are a few exceptions and Richard Branson is one of them. Despite owning an airline, an island and a train service and now the beginnings of a Space Shuttle tourist service– he still appears one of us. Whatever you might criticise him for, having met him a couple of time, I feel that this is more than good PR – he is genuinely approachable, likeable and apparently normal. That in itself is an achievement.

At one point I was due to meet him on his island in the Caribbean but his diary didn’t match with our filming schedule and so despite both of us living in London, the only time we could find a date to meet was when he was attending an accountancy software conference in Chicago. I still wonder if I understood that correctly as neither did the accountancy get together seem to be glossy enough for him or for that matter, relevant.

We set up to meet him in a rather grander hotel than our filming budget normally allows. We couldn’t afford to actually stay there so we just got one room and set up the lights and the filming positions the night before our planned meeting and our sound man got to sleep in the posh hotel whilst the rest of us made it to the regular budget variety we normally stay in.

Having crossed the Atlantic by boat faster than anyone else and then crossed it again in a hot air balloon – Branson is now trying something even more adventurous. He s starting what he claims will be the world’s first spaceline and that is what we went to talk to him about.

I was surprised the meeting was going ahead after an explosion on a test flight had killed one pilot and seriously injured another, and Branson had a rather ill tempered interview on Channel 4 about it. I thought that may have meant he would cancel our interview. But as the date for our meeting neared, we heard nothing and assumed the interview was going ahead.

The Branson space company, called Virgin Galactic has two main projects: SpaceShipTwo and LauncherOne. SpaceShip Two is an air-launched suborbital spaceplane designed for space tourism. It is manufactured by The Spaceship Company, a California-based company owned by Virgin Galactic. The SpaceShip actually looks like three executive jets whose wings have somehow been joined together. The bit that is actually launched is the central aircraft, which rockets away from the mothership once it has been carried sufficiently high into the sky.

The purpose of the SpaceShipTwo is to give its passengers an experiences of entering space and experiencing weightlessness which lasts approximately 6 minutes. Passengers will be able to release themselves from their seats during these 6 minutes and float around the cabin. It doesn’t come cheap of course, a seat or on the spaceflight costs $250,000.

Virgin Galactic’s other space project is LauncherOne. It ‘s designed to launch “smallsat” payloads into Earth orbit.

All of this sounds great fun but there is some scepticism of the benefit of extending tourism to space. But Richard Branson makes much of the benefits of bringing a new generation to the wonders not only of space but how launching oneself above the world gives people a new perspective on life back down on earth.

His engineers join the small ranks of people who, as astronauts, have sat in spaceships looking down on the blue globe to say it has shown them that there is more that unites the people of the world than divides them. It has, they say, shown them the fragility of the earth and how as a small speck in a an ocean of nothingness, we must do more to protect our planet.

Whilst NASA or the European Space Agency may be exploring space for science the Virgin venture SpaceShp is more a fun ride. It seems to some at least, a little frivolous, When I asked Richard abut the polluting side effects of such tourist trips he said that we had created more carbon pollution together in flying to the USA for the interview than a passenger would on a trip to space on his spaceship and my concern was misplaced.

Some may remain unconvinced about the value of space tourism. I am sure it would be a great, if dangerous trip. For those who go, I can see the appeal. But it worries me that apparently we need to leave the Earth to see its value.

People often say that travel expands the horizons. That can be true. But many frequent travellers are also amongst the most jaded I have met. It’s equally possible to understand the value of what you have by just pausing where you are and thinking about it.

Richard Branson and Virgin Galactic may be on the verge of helping create a new era. If they do, it will be big news. He will add his name to the many which history have seen as the big game changers.   It is also true that many of those who have changed the world have been met with scepticism and criticism. Their achievement is to prove all the naysayers wrong and that is something Richard Branson is confident he can do.

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