• Tuesday, June 25, 2024
businessday logo


Reflections on the real Bill Gates


It started with a small fact in a New York Times article in 1997.

A snippet of text that caught the eye of Bill Gates, a man who had already changed the world with personal computing. It was a sad fact that would lead him and his wife, Melinda, to attempt to change the world again – in a very different way.

The fact was this: millions of children in Africa die every year from viruses, many of which have been almost completely wiped out in developed countries.

This revelation prompted Bill to send a note to his father, saying: “Dad, maybe we can do something about this.”

And so the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation – the largest private philanthropic foundation in the world – was born.

Since its establishment, the Gates Foundation has handed out $36.7-billion to eradicate poverty and improve the lives of the poorest of the poor. More than $2.5 billion of this has been used in the effort to eradicate polio, which has been a successful effort in Africa with more than two years having passed since the last case of wild polio virus on the continent.

The Gates Foundation has also contributed $1.5-billion to the GAVI Alliance which has helped inoculate nearly half a billion children worldwide, saving some 7 million lives. We have also committed more than US$1.4 billion to the Global Fund which invests in HIV, TB and Malaria.

And to think it all started with a small fact.

But it has ever been thus that the biggest achievements, catastrophes and events in human history are often borne of very small things, such as tiny mosquitoes and microscopic viruses which claim too many lives in Africa every day.

So when the Nelson Mandela Foundation asked whether Bill would accept the honour of delivering this year’s 14th Annual Nelson Mandela Lecture, he agreed immediately.

He has expressed, on many occasions, his deep admiration for Mandela, whom he met several times. In December 2013, after the passing of the global icon, Bill related how one of his favourite photographs was of Mandela, his father, Bill Sr., and former U.S. President Jimmy Carter cradling HIV-positive babies.

“It sent a powerful message,” Bill wrote, “that people did not need to be afraid of touching a person with HIV. It was just one small step, and we still have a long way to go in the fight against AIDS. But Nelson Mandela played a crucial role in the progress we have made so far. I will never forget the example that he set.”

He wants to use the lecture to build on the ambition that he and Nelson Mandela both shared – to make the world a better place for all who live in it.

Where many see the impossible, Bill sees the possible. Where many see only risks, he sees opportunity. Where many predict failure, he expects success.

I met Bill when I was at PATH, where over the years, I partnered with the Gates Foundation on many health projects. I went to work for the foundation precisely because of the breadth and relentlessness of Bill’s vision, which is to enable all people to pursue healthy, productive lives.

Bill is not just the man who dropped out of Harvard to co-found the world’s biggest software company, and help change the face of personal computing.

He is also the man who has spent – and continues to spend – his time, energy, money and considerable brainpower to try to solve the world’s most challenging problems. And not for the benefit of the elite, but for the billions of voiceless, disempowered people living in poverty around the world.

He has determined, through the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, to solve the intractable problems affecting the world’s poorest — from eradicating polio (which is in sight) to finding a cure for HIV / AIDS, eliminating malaria and empowering women and girls.

Bill changed the world with computers, now he is determined to do the same for the world’s poor.

Who would bet against him?

And to think … that it all just started with a small fact.

Ayo Ajayi