The World Food Program has launched a new joint initiative to help lift small farmers across the developing world out of poverty. Three African presidents, the first lady of Guatemala and Microsoft founder Bill Gates were among those announcing the Purchase for Progress initiative Wednesday on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly.  From United Nation's headquarters in New York, VOA's Margaret Besheer has more.

The new initiative will be launched in 21 pilot countries over the next five years. It aims to help hundreds of thousands of small farmers gain access to reliable markets so they can sell their surplus crops at competitive prices, raising their incomes.

World Food Program Director Josette Sheeran says more than half the 90 million people her organization will help this year are poor farmers who cannot raise enough food to feed and support their own families. The Purchase for Progress program is intended to help them break this cycle. 

"Make no mistake, this is a revolution in food aid, where food aid becomes a productive investment that not only feeds today but produces solutions for tomorrow," Sheeran said.

The Food and Agriculture Organization has warned that the number of hungry has ballooned to more than 900 million worldwide. Officials warn that could increase by another 100 million people this year in the face of the triple shock of the global food, fuel and financial crises.

Supporters of the new project include billionaire Bill Gates, through the foundation he and his wife run, as well as the Howard Buffett Foundation and the government of Belgium.  Combined, the three have provided more than $76 million for projects in Africa and Central America - most of it coming from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Bill Gates said his foundation believes helping small farmers is essential to reducing extreme poverty and hunger throughout the world. 

"Allowing them [the farmers] to participate in these markets is a real win-win [situation]. It will increase the supply of food and it will increase the well-being of these farmers," he said.

Rwandan President Paul Kagame, who was joined at the launch by his Ugandan and Tanzanian counterparts, said the new initiative is a direct response to the global food crisis. 

"Farmers are being given an incentive to produce for the market, to increase productivity, because they have a market. And certainly through purchases they will have access to funds they can invest in inputs, for example, improve seeds, fertilizer, and technologies to increase productivity," he said.

President Kagame welcomed the Purchase for Progress program and said it is the duty of governments to make such initiatives work for their people.