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Bill Gates on the lessons of his travelsIn an interview, Gates tells CNET that his travels to India and Africa have both reignited his passions and challenged some of his assumptions about things like vaccination and adult circumcision.
[ Music ] ^M00:00:04 >> Ina Fried: The letter talks about some of the incredible traveling you did this year. One of those trips earlier in the year was to India. I think it was your 12th trip, if I'm not mistaken. One of the projects that you saw was something called Scuba-rice [phonetic]: an effort to make rice that is more flood-resistant. And I know you met with both the scientists and the farmers. How important is it to create more weather-resistant crops? >> Bill Gates: Well, even today people starve or live very poor livelihood with not enough calories or not enough crops to sell some to get money for school fees because of weather. Weather is... a super-tough problem. And weather's going to get worse. That is, climate change means that there'll be more rain when you don't want it coming all at once, there'll be periods with no rain, draught. And so taking these crops, about ten crops, that are used to feed most people, and improving the common varieties -- and there's a lot of varieties for some of these seeds -- so they can deal with draught or flooding, is critical. In rice, there was this amazing breakthrough where, just by putting one gene in, you can take it so when the rice gets flooded, it'll just wait until the flood goes away and then resume growth. And so if you put two fields next to each other, the current rice variety and the one with this new gene, then after the flood comes, you'll see complete die-off without the gene and great rice that's literally unaffected where you've got this new gene. And it -- we've been able to transfer that gene into many rice varieties. And so it'll improve the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. Now, the other traits like draught resistance may not be as easy, but they're equally important and that's why we need to invest in that science. >> Ina Fried: Also you met with some of the political leaders in India. What are some of the issues going on in India that are most passionate for you? >> Bill Gates: Well, India's quite a mix in terms of the quality of healthcare. In the south, in a state like Corala [phonetic], the health is not much worse than in middle-income countries, whereas up in the north, Utur-Pardesh [phonetic], Bahari [phonetic], you have some of the worst health conditions anywhere on the planet. And you have less kids being vaccinated, more kids dying of measles up there than anywhere else. And so the need to step back, you know, build a better system, make sure that the government money gets to the people who deserve it -- vaccination is one of the easier things. It's much easier than roads and a great education system. It's very basic. It's one of the first things you wanna get right. And what I'm seeing is that there's a set of leaders who are very interested in this and have some new tactics. They're realistic about how hard it is. I mentioned Arohu-Ghandi [phonetic], whose mother's head of the Congress party and is very involved in building up a new generation of politicians that are gonna be more interested in these development issues and the actual delivery, that is what makes the difference. So I was very optimistic after several of those meetings. >> Ina Fried: More recently, in December you traveled to Africa. One of the things you saw firsthand was, I believe in Kenya, where they're using cell phones to do money transfer. And you saw some of the micro businesses that sort of that enables. How far has that gotten and what are some of the challenges still there in terms of bringing banking and, I think, eventually savings to people that haven't had it? >> Bill Gates: Well, the pervasiveness of the cell phone is very strong, even in quite poor countries. And so we can often think for health or savings, you know, how can you take advantage of that? It's not gonna be easy, because you've gotta have a simple user interface, you've gotta have very cheap transaction fees, and yet we've seen them now, in Kenya, that with the transfer, money transfer system they call Empace [phonetic], it's really started. And so the idea that with very low fees, you could track your savings and loan money to other people, that really would be a breakthrough. Right now, the actual fees involved in financial services are the worst for the poorest because, as a percentage, they're just too high. So we need a breakthrough. It's one of those catalytic elements like food or health that would make a huge difference. And in this case, a lot of it's sort of a pure software thing, that is more like my traditional Microsoft work. >> Ina Fried: Obviously AIDS remains a huge issue that the foundation, and really a lot of global health, is centering a lot of attention on. Beyond the vaccine research and expanding anti-viral treatments, one of the things you talked about that I think was probably one of the things you'd look back and say, "That was a surprise this year," is the role that circumcision can play. Is some of going to travel for these countries, is some of it stuff that you really have to see firsthand? And what are some of the things you learned when you traveled to, I think this was in South Africa? >> Bill Gates: Yeah, certainly being on the ground is crucial. It re-motivates you and you get to see what's working better or not working as well. Circumcision is definitely one that -- although we've put money behind it -- I just didn't think the demand from adult males would be very high. You know, it's a fairly personal thing. You'd at least think that it might be a painful operation. There's cultural beliefs that whatever you've decided to do, you're probably comfortable with. And so it's quite surprising to me that in multiple centers, including this Bortraun-Ovayer [phonetic] one in South Africa, the demand has been very high. In fact, in this one area, township, they've got somewhere between 70 and 90 percent of the males to have this procedure. And that will dramatically reduce the spread of AIDS. It won't stop it. Doesn't make you invulnerable. But it's a big enough effect that this is a great intervention. And to really believe it, I had to sit and talk with the kids who were just coming out of the operating room or coming back for their 30-day checkup, and say, "Why is the word of mouth on this so good? And what got you to come here? And what were the negatives?" And clearly, those results are the real thing. >> Ina Fried: Are there things that you anticipate you'll be spending more time on in the next year than you did last year? >> Bill Gates: Well... this'll be the year where a lot of the energy stuff gets talked about and... I think a key time for that, because these lead times, the sooner you get the right RND investments, for whether it's for the government or the private sector, the better. So that will be big. A lot of this agricultural stuff. More discussions around that. The next phase of the vaccine, delivery challenge getting going. And surprises will come up, things like Haiti and what can we do there to help? Or the government in the US is giving out money called "race to the top" money on education innovation, and partnering with the states that win those funds, making sure that that gets spent well. There'll be things that come along that I need to keep time for, to make sure I can put it into those as well. >> Ina Fried: And you're gonna be keeping us up to date on your website and then tweeting about this? >> Bill Gates: You bet. I, maybe three times a week I'll have something. And maybe one of those will be a long, thoughtful piece about a book or about a particular problem, and a couple will just be pointing to things where I think somebody's being really insightful, and maybe one a week will be more frivolous. I'm learning what people like and that's another fun thing for me this year. And completely new, this is the year I return to the digital world. >> Ina Fried: Great. Thanks so much, Bill, you've obviously been very generous with your time. I appreciate it. >> Bill Gates: Thank you. ^M00:08:28 [ Music ]