updated 9/12/2006 6:03:48 PM ET 2006-09-12T22:03:48

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation announced Tuesday it was joining with the Rockefeller Foundation to fight hunger in Africa, beginning with a $100 million pledge to improve agricultural productivity.

The Gates pledge was matched by a $50 million Rockefeller donation. Officials at the two foundations said the money was just the beginning of a much bigger effort to bring the "green revolution" to Africa.

"This is just an unbelievably important issue," Rajiv Shah, director for financial services and agriculture for the Seattle-based Gates Foundation, said last week. "We're almost certain we'll make subsequent, significant investments."

In the original green revolution, the Rockefeller and Ford foundations led a worldwide effort to bring new farming technology and increased productivity to Latin America and Asia in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s. The effort never made its way to Africa after improving food production in Latin America and Asia for a number of reasons, said Gary Toenniessen, director of the food security program for the New York-based Rockefeller Foundation.

First, Africa was in good shape agriculturally when Asia was in trouble. But world interest in combating the problem started to wane when Africa started needing more help in the 1980s, Toenniessen said, adding that helping Africa was more complicated because many more crops were involved and getting water and fertilizer to the fields was much more difficult.

‘Attention was waning’
"Timing is everything. At the time of the first green revolution, Africa wasn't was much of a concern. When it became a concern, that attention was waning," said Nadya Shmavonian, vice president of foundation initiatives for the Rockefeller Foundation.

The Rockefeller Foundation began shifting its agriculture work from Asia to Africa about 10 years ago, Toenniessen said.

The Gates Foundation announced in May that it would spend more to combat poverty and hunger. Tuesday's announcement was the foundation's first big grant in those areas.

"Global development will be by far our fastest-growing area," Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, co-chair of the Gates Foundation, said Tuesday. "We hope to find other fantastic opportunities like what we're announcing today."

(Microsoft is a partner with NBC News in MSNBC.com.)

He would not say what the foundation's total commitment toward this project would be.

‘A virtuous cycle’
"We're scaling up here, at least on our part, from zero," Gates said, adding that the foundations are hoping to start "a virtuous cycle."

Gates speculated that once the projects to help farmers got off the ground, the farmers and their governments would reinvest in the infrastructure needed to make a lasting impact.

The original green revolution in Asia and South America cost about $600 million in today's dollars, said Judith Rodin, president of the Rockefeller Foundation.

Gates and his wife, Melinda, said they have been impressed by the Rockefeller Foundation's work and see their role as providing the money to scale up the project and attract other donations.

Africa needs better seed varieties, more trained crop scientists, seed distribution methods, help for farmers to get their crops to market, and ways to distribute fertilizer to improve soils, Shah and Toenniessen said.

Toenniessen said many of the improvements are more social engineering than technological changes. For example, he said his organization has persuaded shop owners in rural areas to stock fertilizer and farm equipment and then encourage farmers to buy them.

The foundations are working together to create loan programs for farmers.

"No matter what we do, we cannot escape the fact that agricultural development is just a key to human health," Shmavonian said.

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