Microsoft founder Bill Gates may have made his billions making software but he will ultimately make his mark as arguably the greatest philanthropist the world has ever seen.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which he formed with his wife in 2000, has invested some US$9bn in Africa in the last 15 years; and he announced this week a further $5-billion over the next five years. This will go towards health research, especially focussed on HIV/Aids, malaria, tuberculosis and malnutrition.
The world’s richest man has also convinced several other wealthy people, including Warren Buffett, to donate vast chunks of their wealth to the foundation, which has an endowment of $39.6bn and has paid out grants of $36.7bn.
Gates is in South Africa this week for the 21st International Aids Conference and gave the 14th Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture at the University of Pretoria’s Mamelodi campus on Sunday. Honorary lectures such as these have managed to retain their stature as a powerful statement about the world, provide a mission statement for how to make the planet a better place and, in this case, celebrate the life and work of the icon after who it is named. These lectures hark back to a time before the global village that is the global TV networks, the internet and Twitter, to a time when a there wasn’t a way to broadcast a new idea, or a scientific discovery, into the homes of billions.
The Royal Institution was famous for its high-profile lectures on science; and legend has it (okay Wikipedia, but sometimes the same) that Sir Humphry Davy’s lectures were so popular, the number of horse-drawn carriages down Albemarle Street resulted in it becoming London’s first one-way street.
These kinds of lectures have perhaps been replaced with the publishing of a book, followed by the author’s appearance on TV shows and the book circuit; or the concise joy that is a TED talk. There has been some derision about the short, sometimes epigrammatic format of these wildly popular talks, ranging from three to 20 minutes. But ask anyone who has seen Sir Ken Robinson’s joyous discussion on the importance of education – or Bene Brown’s discourse on the power of vulnerability, or Terry Moore’s life-changing, three-minute lesson on the correct way to tie your shoe laces – and they will confirm TED talks are the inspirational, trend-setting public lecture of our time.
But the grand old public lecture – especially in the name of the great Nelson Mandela, whose past speakers have included former US President, Bill Clinton, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Mo Ibrahim, whose foundation rewards African governance – remains arguably the most prestigious of stages.
Gates praised Africa for its gains – including money service M-Pesa and clever uses of mobile technology in education – but reminded the audience that there are still mountains of poverty and disease that need moving.
“It’s clear to everyone how big and complicated the challenges are,” Gates said, also the chairman of Microsoft, which is still the biggest software company in the world. “But it’s just as clear that people with bravery, energy, intellect, passion, and stamina can face big, complicated challenges and overcome them. There is so much more work to be done to create a future in which we can all live together.”
True to his tech roots, Gates said: “One of the most exciting prospects is the role African governments can play in accelerating the use of digital technology to leapfrog the traditional models and costly infrastructure associated with banking and delivery of government services.”
Gates, like Mandela, believes in the youth, whose potential he highlighted, as well as “the ingenuity of the African people”. Let’s prove both great men are right.
This article first appeared in Financial Mail.