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Why Bill Gates is “Investing” (Another) $5 Billion in Africa and Africans

GatesBack in the 1990s, Microsoft was a bit of an Evil Empire, and Bill Gates was its architect, single-mindedly trying to conquer the world, desktop by desktop. 

In case you have not been paying attention, Bill Gates has reinvented himself. The world’s richest man stepped down as CEO of Microsoft in 2000, and for the most part stepped away from the business entirely in 2008 to focus on philanthropy. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has outspent the World Health Organization every year since it was founded in 2000, and has spent over $6 billion to save millions of people from AIDS, measles, polio, tuberculosis and malaria. [Overall, the Gates Foundation has a wider focus, and has spent over $36 billion to help people and societies.]

Over the past 15 years, the Gates Foundation has invested more than $9 billion in Africa, and in delivering the 14th Nelson Mandela Lecture on July 17 at the University of Pretoria, Gates announced the foundation will be investing another $5 billion over the next five years.

Gates said, “When Melinda and I started our foundation 15 years ago, we asked ourselves: what are the areas of greatest opportunity? It was clear to us that investing in health was at the top of the list. When people aren’t healthy, they can’t turn their attention to other priorities. But when health improves, life improves by every measure. If we invest in the right things – if we make sure the basic needs of Africa’s young people are taken care of – then they will have the physical, cognitive, and emotional resources they need to change the future.”

Note the word “investing”; Bill Gates is not “giving” his money away, he is investing it.

At TELL, we sometimes (but not often, thankfully!) run into a “what’s in it for me?” attitude among potential donors. These people seem to think CSR (corporate social responsibility) is and should be inextricably linked to marketing and sales. That’s not to say this sort of attitude is limited to Japan. Far from it. It’s just that some executives don’t see “community” and “society” and “people” as worthwhile “investments”. 

Millions of work days are lost in Japan every year to mental health issues such as stress, anxiety and depression, and the cost to labor productivity of mental health issues is estimated in the trillions of yen. In 2008, the costs of depression to business in Japan were nearly US$7 billion. And depression-related suicide costs were over US$2.5 billion. 

A mentally healthy workforce is linked to lower medical costs, as well as less absenteeism and presenteeism. And a mentally unhealthy workforce is associated with increased loss of productivity. More than 26% of businesses surveyed in 2014 by the Health Ministry said they had cases of workers resigning or taking leave of more than one month for mental health reasons. This was up from just 7.6% in a survey conducted three years before. The bulk of those businesses, or 84% of respondents, said problems of mental health affected their business performance negatively.

When Bill Gates says he is “investing” in Africa, and in global health, he means he expects a return. In his Mandela speech, he noted recent estimates in Nigeria and Uganda indicate that every dollar invested to reduce stunted growth due to malnutrition will return $17 in greater earning capacity in the workplace. 

That’s why Bill Gates says he is “investing” in Africa and Africans.