What Howard Buffett Does in Africa

For hours I travel on roads with potholes big as craters deep into the Democratic Republic of Congo, then walk uphill through the dirt. This is a beautiful country, but poverty, corruption and civil war have left it lacking essential services like roads. The area is rough and majestic at the same time; one of the world’s most bio-diverse regions, it’s made all the more magical by the presence of its famed mountain gorillas. Yet people loot it for timber and poach the animals. Civil war cycles through its history. Surrounded by rich earth, farmers starve amidst the turmoil.

Still, deep in the thick forest, I come to a sign of progress: a nearly finished hydroelectric plant. It is being built not by the Congolese government, but by American multimillionaire Howard G. Buffett.

An electric plant in the DRC seems far afield for an American businessman whose family is known for taking calculated risks to build wealth in a first-world economy. Yet, the element of risk—and the possibility of a nonfinancial reward—are what’s drawn Buffett to this third-world project.

“The truth is, [Americans’] foundation money should be the risk capital of the world,” Buffett told me when I returned to the United States. “I mean, we should go out and take the most risk that anybody can take to run something new or try to change something that hasn’t been changed for years. It’s a challenge and we own it, because who else would start a hydro plant in the middle of a war?”

Buffett doesn’t seem like the most obvious person to invest millions in one of the world’s poorest and most dangerous countries. The middle son of billionaire investor Warren Buffett, Howard, 60, lives in Illinois and is president of Buffett Farms, a 1,500-acre family property. But he is no simple Illinois farmer: Buffett sits on corporate boards including those of Berkshire Hathaway, the holding company his father founded, and Coca-Cola. He has eclectic interests: Besides his self-declared love of growing corn and soybeans, Buffett is also an author, photographer, conservationist, former politician. 

His philanthropy, a dominant passion for Buffett, commenced in his 30s, when his parents gave him and his two siblings $100,000 each to give away. “One hundred thousand dollars is not a lot of money,” Buffett recalls. “It was a great training lesson in how to say ‘no’ and how to learn to focus, which was really hard for me.”

Howard G. Buffett at his farm in Wilcox, AZ; Soledad O’Brien and Chief Park Ranger Emmanuel de Merode tour the site of a future hydroelectric plant.

Buffett, who attended three colleges, each for a year, dropped out of the University of California-Irvine after he visited Africa in the mid-1970s as part of a semester abroad program. He fell in love with the people and beauty of the continent and began making frequent trips in the mid-1990s as a partner and investor in GSI Group, an Illinois-based company that makes grain bins. Buffett found Africa’s seemingly intractable problems a challenge, and he put much of his parents’ $100,000 to use in Africa. “I just think it was the fact that this is so difficult and no one else wants to do it,” he says.

In 1999 Buffett launched the Howard G. Buffett Foundation. Its purpose: to bring “transformational change” to poor and marginalized populations by creating food and water security, and enhancing public safety and conservation efforts, particularly of the cheetah and mountain gorilla populations. Most ambitiously, the foundation conceives and funds development projects that, Buffett believes, are the long-term solutions to the conflict and poverty at the heart of the DRC’s problems.

Again, Warren Buffett and wife Susan Thompson supported their son’s philanthropy. In 2000 they gave him nearly $100 million in Berkshire Hathaway stock, followed by $120 million in 2004 and $160 million in 2008.

To date, Howard’s parents have given their son’s foundation some $1.5 billion, of which nearly $200 million has been invested in Africa’s Great Lakes region. Consistent with the Buffetts’ low-key style, the foundation doesn’t advertise its contributions: Only the border crossing between the DRC and Rwanda has a large sign announcing its involvement. “We rarely put our name on anything,” Buffett explains. “I don’t think that has much value.”

But if the locals don’t always know who is building these infrastructure projects, they certainly know what and where they are. In December 2013, right after the foundation broke soil on the Matebe hydroelectric plant in Rutshuru, the site was shelled. In the middle of a conflict zone, the construction crews were doing the slow and noisy work of digging through dense soil to create the vertical drop necessary to create enough water pressure to turn a turbine.

The foundation pushed on. Since then, it has funded work on two other plants as well as businesses that profit from the plants, such as the production of soap and papaya enzyme. Mutwanga, the pilot plant, was the first to go online, in 2013. The one I saw, Matebe, should be done by the end of 2015, and the two others are right behind it. When all the plants are online, they will bring electricity to 2 million people in the dark region surrounding the nearby city of Goma and create an estimated 45,000 jobs. The foundation is considering plans to build more plants.

Howard G. Buffett

Assuming, that is, that armed conflict and difficult conditions don’t slow or cripple the work. The sites are now protected by the Virunga National Park Rangers, whose efforts to save the endangered mountain gorillas during a civil war were chronicled in a 2014 Oscar-nominated film called Virunga. Buffett executive produced the film and has made the park’s director, Emmanuel de Merode, the head of the foundation that manages the projects. Determined to show me what the future could bring, de Merode, a Kenya-raised Belgian who was a prince in his parent’s native country, was my tour guide at Matebe.

“Those are the Virunga Mountains,” he said, shouting over the noise of 500 workers and large construction equipment. “The water will come down a river, and then after just over a few hundred meters there’s a diversion on the river. There’s no dam, there’s no flooding, so there’s no impact on the flow of the water. But at the same time it generates 13 megawatts.” That, de Merode explained, is basically three times what Goma, population about a million, now receives, and will make a profound difference in the lives of those million people.

The high risks have scared off other potential investors, but the ability to have such an enormous impact has kept Buffett committed. He began by pledging $10 million to finance 50 percent of construction of the first site. When other investors couldn’t be found, he pledged the other $10 million. Still hoping that his example would encourage others to donate or invest, Buffett has so far put another $39 million into the next two sites, about 75 percent of the total cost. “How could others not want to get involved,” he says, “when the risk comes with such rich rewards?”

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