Winter 2014 – Interview with Howard Buffett

In a Q&A, Howard Graham Buffett shows his many hats and his effort to take on hunger.

Farmer, philanthropist, photographer—Howard Graham Buffett wears many hats. Growing up, his father Warren made it clear that it was his responsibility to make his own way. When he came into possession of a broken tractor, he knew he had found his calling, and dedicated himself to grain farming in the Midwest. Meanwhile, an interest in photography took him to the far corners of the world, where he became involved in conservation projects. In 2006, with a major gift from his father and the help of his son, Howard Warren, he expanded his philanthropic operations and focused on hunger. The two Howards recently collaborated on a book, 40 Chances: Finding Hope in a Hungry World. Philanthropy sat down with Buffett to discuss the lessons in the book.

Philanthropy: What are the 40 Chances?

Buffett: I saw a talk at a John Deere dealership. The speaker said farmers really get 40 growing seasons, 40 chances to make their best crop. It’s pretty much like life. In our foundation, we think about, “What are our 40 chances?” We need to act with urgency. We need to take more risk and find new things. It really drives us differently than if we just sit there and think, “Well, we’ve got a big endowment; the grandkids will do this; life goes on.” It’s really a mindset for us now.

Philanthropy: How are your two passions of conservation and hunger linked?

Buffett: In 1992 a guy said to me, “No one will starve to save a tree.” Around that same time I would go off to the Serengeti and photograph the cheetahs and look at conservation projects, but then I would talk to the villagers. From their perspective we were spending money on cheetah populations while the cheetahs were killing their livestock. I realized that if we didn’t focus on people and their needs, there isn’t any way we’re going to be able to preserve the environment.

Philanthropy: Why else is your foundation battling hunger?


“I use photography to explain what I’m doing and why.”

Buffett: Once you start looking at hunger, you realize it causes conflict. You also realize conflict causes hunger. It works both ways. You can’t really get away from it. 

In eastern Congo, we’re going to spend more than $40 million directed just at one province this year. What we’re trying to do is meet people’s hunger needs, offer hope, and use that to promote peace. The conventional wisdom is to wait for peace and stability, and then invest. We’re saying, “No, let’s invest now.” With more hope for the future, people will demand peace, or at least allow for it.

And conflict, of course, loops back around to conservation, too. The biggest source of capital for many African militia groups and rebels is ivory. We’re providing elite K-9 units to go after poachers. We’re also going to use intelligence systems, aircraft, and rapid-response teams to interrupt capital flows to rebels and militia groups who are creating conflicts that we deal with down the line as humanitarian problems.

The great byproduct is we’re also going to save elephants. But it’s funny because that’s the other end of where I started. Twenty-five years ago I would have been doing this to save the elephants. Today I’m doing it to stop conflict. It’s a complete turnaround.

Philanthropy: How does your experience as a lifelong farmer inform your philanthropic work?

Buffett: To increase agricultural productivity, you have to figure out the local impediments and solutions to fit them. It’s sometimes pretty frustrating because you see a lot of money and a lot of effort being put into programs or policies that really push an American or Western way of doing it. In agriculture, that absolutely isn’t going to work. If I look at 600 million small farms across 54 countries on a continent like Africa, they won’t look like a farm in Nebraska. They can’t look like a farm in Nebraska—not in an effective and efficient way. What should they look like, and what should we be doing to help them look like they need to? We’re doing a lot of research in Arizona and South Africa on small farm systems that are conservation-based. We’ve talked to farmers, just figuring out what they can and can’t afford.

Philanthropy: You’ve written that as an independent foundation you can take risks that governments and nonprofits dependent on outside donors can’t. What are you able to achieve in that position?

Buffett: We see our foundation as risk capital, because we do have a tremendous amount of flexibility. If I have to put on a fundraiser or five every year, I have to make sure my donors are happy. That drives a certain kind of behavior: doing safe things, making sure it looks good, taking less risk. We can use our independence to be more innovative and try things that others may not want to try.

A year ago, we funded a pilot project for a small hydroelectric plant in the Congo. I don’t know anybody else who would have funded it. Within a few months of that pilot, there were two European companies that wanted to set up processing plants using our power. One was a company that extracts enzymes from papaya. They now employ about 30 people, and they’ll probably grow. The other company came in and started producing soap, which no one else in eastern Congo was doing. That hydroelectric plant wouldn’t exist if we weren’t willing to put money into it. That’s a success from something that was highly risky.

On the other hand, I have no problem with failing. We fail all the time. The only bad failure is if you don’t learn something from it.


“Photography played a huge role in what I came to understand about hunger…”

Philanthropy: How about private versus government aid?

Buffett: Both need an exit strategy that allows the people you’re working with to have their own exit strategy. If I do a project for three years and I go home, have I created dependency? Have I left them with some kind of conflict? The key is whether I helped them solve their problems.

Our government has a great legacy of assisting and feeding people around the world. This is something to be proud of, but there are drawbacks, too. One is the requirement that the primary kind of food aid we give today is in commodities instead of cash for local purchase. Back in 2005-2006, I had an experience in Angola where we tried to get food to villages and the U.S. couldn’t deliver. It would take months. But we could have gone into the region and purchased food within weeks.

More fundamentally, when we take our commodities to a place like Nigeria where farmers are struggling, we undermine that market and ruin the community’s ability to support itself. We’ve learned that using cash to purchase local or regional products to address food issues is a quick and efficient way to solve humanitarian crises without undermining the local economy.

Philanthropy: How can business and philanthropy collaborate?

Buffett: Many international charities are automatically suspicious of business, thinking “because a company did this, we can’t be associated with them.” That’s been a huge lost opportunity. If you want to pull people out of poverty, they need jobs. They need economic independence. Businesses provide that. If you look at Africa, the largest single employer on the continent is Coca-Cola. Creating jobs is ultimately the long-term answer.

The challenge is that no matter where you go, there’s always a division of people below a certain line where they’re just really, really poor and they have really, really big hurdles. Business isn’t necessarily going to help that group of people right away. But it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use business to help a huge sector of people in the middle that can be pulled out of poverty permanently.

We’ve worked with Coca-Cola, Starbucks, and Green Mountain Coffee in Central and South America. When we get done with a project with them, the people that we serve don’t need us anymore because they’ve got jobs. Farmers selling in the marketplace understand contracts, quality, and delivery. The role we played was to find somebody who could make sure that that training took place.

Philanthropy: You make a point of getting out and meeting the people you’re working with, which can be both uplifting and challenging. One particularly sad story in your book concerns a woman in Angola with a sick baby. You really wanted to reach out to her and ran the numbers on ways to help her village, but ultimately made the difficult decision not to get involved. How do you make such a tough choice?

Buffett: I’ll never forget driving away from that village, knowing that many of those kids are going to die and there’s nothing we can do about it. That’s a sinking feeling. The woman was trying to hand me her child, but from a legal and moral standpoint there just wasn’t any way for me to take her baby and go home. I did think maybe we could set up an emergency intervention for the whole village. Long story short, one village became 18, and when we did an assessment of everything it would entail, we realized we couldn’t spend $5 million for a small group of villagers, not knowing what happens to save them again six months or a year later. That was a hard lesson to learn.


“…I could not look away,” Buffett says.

Philanthropy: You use photography as a philanthropic tool.

Buffett: I’ve seen so many things that I don’t know how to describe. But when you’re using a camera, you can take the image home and use it to show people what’s going on. The camera has been an amazing tool for me.

Philanthropy: Your camera played a key role in your work rounding up African fighters from the Lord’s Resistance Army.

Buffett: I was planting soybeans in Illinois when I got a phone call. A friend connected with the Ugandan army said, “Caesar Acellam, the number-two general, has been captured.” There was already a rumor among the remaining fugitives that the Ugandans had killed him, or that he was being tortured in captivity. My job was to get some photographs to put on flyers and drop into the jungle to show others who might want to defect that he wasn’t tortured, that he’s still alive. My friends wanted an image with a big smile to show that he’s in good health and he’s happy that he came in.

My solution was to make him a peanut-butter sandwich. Everybody told me it was crazy, but it worked! I made the sandwich—a new and special meal for him—which got him to relax in front of my camera. Those flyers brought more defections from the LRA in the last year than in the previous three or four. About 30 fighters came out of the LRA last year and went back to their families. Most of those defections happened because of the flyers.

You think about how to fix big problems, fundamental issues. Then all of a sudden you get a chance to do a very specific thing. And you see that sometimes you need to focus on the smaller and more personal things.

Philanthropy: What else has surprised you in your philanthropy?

Buffett: My dad gave us $3 billion! We started right here in Omaha back in the 1980s. We set up a little foundation and each of us kids got $100,000 to work with. We did that for a long time, and later we set up individual foundations for each of us. But I never dreamed that we’d get to the point where we could spend $140 million a year trying to deal with big issues. It’s been a great opportunity and really the biggest surprise in my life.

Philanthropy: You might say that philanthropy is now the Buffett family business. What advice would you give to other philanthropic families on how to involve the next generation?

Buffett: Engage your kids early. Take them around the world to places out of their comfort zone. Go to the food bank in your own community. Most of the people who go the first time to help will go back a second time.

Philanthropy: Who are your inspirations?

Buffett: Besides my dad, of course, my inspirations are the people we work with. The truth is that it all comes down to the people you are trying to help. You think big, but actually you give more for the individual people you’ve met than for something in the abstract. What’s inspirational to me is that suffering people can keep the faith and not give up. If they aren’t going to give up, we can’t give up.   

(Photos by Howard G. Buffett) 

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