When he was ushered into the Iowa State Capitol in Des Moines, Iowa, last When he was ushered into the Iowa State Capitol in Des Moines, Iowa, last week, for the conferment of the 2017 World Food Prize, Dr. Akinwumi Adesina received a standing ovation. The award was an endorsement of his activities over the past two decades with the Rockefeller Foundation, the Alliance for Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) and as Minister of Agriculture in Nigeria.
Adesina, now the President of the African Development Bank (AfDB), has been at the forefront of galvanizing political will to transform African agriculture through initiatives that will expand agricultural production, thwart corruption in the fertilizer industry and exponentially increase credit for smallholder farmers across Africa. The 2017 World Food Laureate, in this chat with our correspondent, JIMOH BABATUNDE, who was in Des Moines, Iowa, reveals the journey so far and what the award means to him and the AfDB.
On what the award means to him
As somebody who grew out of poverty, who only got really fortunate to have been sent to school by my father, it is mind-boggling for me to come from that background to the global stage to receive the World Food Prize; it tells you that there is a lot of opportunities even for kids of very poor people; so that means a lot to me.
For millions of rural poor, their aspiration is to make it out of poverty, especially through their kids and thereby lay the foundation of a march out of poverty for generations to come. My father and grandfather were farmers, and became so poor farming they had to work as part-time labourers on other people’s farms. My father told me that farming did not pay.
It was through a benefactor that he made it out of the village to get the benefit of education. It was that golden opportunity, with a lot of sacrifices, that gave me the benefit of an education, and, today, by God’s grace, I have an incredible opportunity to stand on the global stage to receive the World Food Prize. We must invest, therefore, in education across Africa, especially across rural Africa, because this is the fastest way to end generational transfer of poverty. Second is that I feel it is a recognition for all the work I have done in my career, of course my vision is always to lift hundreds and millions of people out of poverty .
I don’t do anything for recognition, but I feel delighted that my work, over the years, has been recognised. What this means to me is that there is so much ahead to do, so, even as I am excited, I am always looking forward to the fact that we still have to feed 300 million people in Africa that are hungry. We still have to turn agriculture in Africa around into a wealth creating sector. It puts winds behind my sail and especially for me and my staff at the AfDB as we launch our biggest development efforts in the history of Africa to feed itself. So, I feel motivated and encouraged.
On why he studied agriculture
My father wanted me to be a medical doctor. I was only 14 and whenever I wanted to take the exams, he will fill the form, medicine first choice, veterinary medicine secondary choice and dentistry third choice. So, I have to be a doctor anyway. Every time I applied they will say, ‘Sorry, your grade did not make it to medical school, we will take you for agriculture’. My father, who grew up as a poor farmer, would say no. I tried three times and each time I was taken for agriculture.
Then my father said, ‘Go, God desperately wants you in agriculture’. So, when I finished my PhD in United States, I was so happy to write my dad a letter and I signed it ‘Doctor’. Then I was called ‘Doctor’ from that time, but when his second son graduated from medical school in United States, my dad was 90 years old and we brought him to United States. He was trying to ask a question, he said ‘Doctor’. I turned and answered, ‘Ýes, Dad’. He said ‘not you, I mean the real Doctor’.
I told my father that even the ‘real doctor’ will ask you to take your medication three times a day only after food, ‘it means agriculture is still more important’. That is why agriculture is the coolest thing you can ever find and we at AfDB are accelerating investments to get younger commercial farmers and agribusiness entrepreneurs into agriculture. To succeed in agriculture, Africa needs young and educated people in the sector.
They will take agriculture as a business. They will make agriculture “cool.” I fully expect the future millionaires and billionaires of Africa to come from agriculture. To spur this, the African Development Bank has launched a youth in agriculture initiative – ENABLE – to develop the next generation of agripreneurs for Africa. In 2016, we invested $800 million in eight countries under the initiative. In 2017, we will reach 15 countries.
Over the next 10 years, the bank will invest $15 billion to develop new youth agriculture entrepreneurs. We will empower women and achieve greater access to finance for women. No bird can fly with one wing. Africa will move faster if it achieves equality for women in terms of access to land, property rights and finance.
That’s why the African Development Bank has launched Affirmative Finance Action for Women in Africa (AFAWA) to mobilize $3 billion for businesses of women in Africa, the majority of whom will be in rural areas, to engage in agriculture and food businesses.“
On the conviction that agriculture can transform the continent
As a Christian, the Bible inspires me. It tells of the story of Apostle Paul, preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ and, in a vision, he heard a cry from the people of Macedonia. The voice said, ‘Come to Macedonia and help us’ (Acts 9:16). Paul rose in obedience to preach the gospel and save the people.
I know you all must be wondering whether you were listening to a preacher today. Of course, I am a preacher. For like Paul, I also hear the voices rising out of rural Africa, ‘Come here and help us get out of poverty’. This ‘agriculture gospel’ was first preached by Dr. Norman Borlaug, the Nobel Peace Prize-winner, who created the World Food Prize, for he heard the voices of a billion people and, through his dedicated work, delivered a green revolution across Asia that fed a billion people.
Dr. Borlaug was a huge inspiration for me. But one moment in particular stands out in our relationship. It was in 2006, as we both walked the streets of New York on our way to the Rockefeller Foundation. He gently put his hand on my shoulder and asked, ‘Akin, do you play football?’ I wondered why he would ask such a question, out of the blue, given that we were discussing agriculture and how to feed Africa. Unsure of what he was getting at, I politely said, ‘yes, I play soccer’. He then proceeded, now with deliberateness in his voice: ‘You see, in soccer, you can never believe you can win, unless you score the first goal.
Akin, I want you to go out there and score goals for agriculture in Africa. Then Africa will believe it can win with agriculture’. It was such a defining moment for me. I am proud to be a disciple of Norman Borlaug to preach the new ‘agriculture gospel’ across Africa. The ‘agriculture gospel’ is simple: To lift millions of people out of poverty, agriculture must become a business. For in agriculture as a business lies the hope of economic prosperity for Africa.“
Why Africa still finds it difficult to feed itself
As a father, you can never leave your kids when it is time for dinner and tell them to go and feed in your neighbour’s house. That is not a responsible father and I don’t think Africa has any business importing food. God loves Africa, God has given Africa so much; we have great sunshine, lots of water, cheap labour.
Take a look at the savannah of Africa. Africa has today 600 million of very good land that can be cultivated; we need urgent action on unlocking the vast potentials of the African savannah. With an estimated area of 600 million hectares, of which 400 million is cultivatable, the savannah of Africa remains the world’s largest underutilized agricultural zone. Less than 10% of the savannah is under cultivation.
Yet, the savannahs helped Brazil to dominate the global food supply in soybean, maize and dairy; and the savannahs helped north-east Thailand to become the largest exporter of rice and cassava globally. So, I feel sometimes that we are like in a situation we see gold, but we pass it thinking it is dirt. Agriculture is what is going to turn Africa around through agricultural industrialization. To feed Africa and put Africa in a good position to feed the world, the African Development Bank is launching the Transformation of African Savannah Initiative (TASI), in partnership with Brazil, Japan, the World Bank and other partners.
What can be done in terms of policies?
I think in terms of policy, African leaders should not abandon their farmers. Every nation that has actually transformed in agriculture has given strong support to farmers. African farmers are so poor and they are the most under supported farmers in the world.
The first thing is to support farmers, support the private sector in agriculture; recognise that agriculture is not just about government, the private sector has to be involved. Integration is very important because Africa size of our market is big and we are not trading enough with each other. We are actually importing more food instead of actually selling food from one country to another and that is why at AfDB, we are talking about regional integration by investing in roads, ports and rails to be able to connect countries to each other and move good and services all across. In terms of financial inclusion, the power of mobile phone is amazing, it allows Africans do things in terms of savings, money transfer, insurance, access to health and education. Look at what Epesa in Kenya has done. $26 billion goes through that platform every single year.
Look at what the mobile phone has done in Nigeria when I used it to end the over 40years of corruption in the fertilizer sector as Minister of Agriculture. We used the mobile phone to reach over 50million people to access seeds and fertilizer in four years. Today, we are scaling it up to 30 African countries, so I think policies are important; larger regional size of markets and access to finance is critical. We must start tapping into this potential market to create wealth by strongly supporting farmers, especially millions of smallholder farmers. I have never seen any farmer that wants to be poor, and neither have I met a subsistence farmer. What I have seen are hard-working farmers, who simply are poor because they lack access to technologies to boost their production, without access to affordable finance, unable to turn their land assets to wealth, abandoned by political leaders, and left to fend for themselves, like a boat left to drift at sea.
Yet, like every one of us, deep down in their hearts is an undying hope that they will leave behind a better future for their children; that their children will not have to suffer the indignities of poverty. The hope of millions of marginalized Africans is that, through a good education, their own children will escape from the traps and clutches of poverty. The main highway out of poverty for farmers lies in having the right political leadership, one that is able to take bold decisions to unshackle millions desperately looking for help and an opportunity to create wealth. It was this search for political leaders that’ll stand up and be counted that led me and my colleagues at the Rockefeller Foundation, to initiate the Africa Fertilizer Summit, backed by eminent global leaders, with the inspiration of then President Obasanjo of Nigeria. It was the largest effort in Africa’s history to galvanize leaders for agriculture. At the age of 92 years, Dr. Borlaug showed up in Abuja, Nigeria, calling on leaders to rise up.
They did. The result was the adoption of the need for an African green revolution by 40 Heads of State. We turned back 30 years of push back on the use of fertilizer in Africa. But we won’t get anywhere unless farmers in rural areas are able to access farm inputs. I realized that millions of farmers were unable to obtain access to improved seeds and fertilizer because rural input markets were poorly developed or absent in most cases. It was easier to find soda pop in rural Africa than farm inputs.
This led me, while at the Rockefeller Foundation, to develop and work with several partners to roll out a major program to develop agro-dealer networks, a network of rural farm input retail shops across rural Africa. And we needed several thousands of them per country to ensure no farmer travelled more than 3 kilometers’ radius to find seeds and fertilizer. Guarantee facilities were established in several African countries to improve the access of agro dealers to trade finance in order to stock up on farm inputs. The initiative triggered a revolution, unleashing a wave of rural farm input shops run by the private sector, and successfully getting farm inputs to the doorsteps of farmers. With over $150 million in funding to AGRA, we began to roll out these farm input shops.
Today, millions of farmers can now easily gain access to farm inputs, boosting farm production, triggering rapid growth of seed and fertilizer companies. Always, I was inspired by Dr. Borlaug’s words: ‘Take it to the farmers’.The fact is that we could get even greater results if farmers receive strong support from governments, just as they did when Norman Borlaug led the green revolution in Asia.
I am an advocate for subsidies for farmers in Africa. Many had written off subsidies in Africa, as corruption-laden and inefficient. And they were right, but they missed the crucial point: the problem was not the subsidy, but the system that delivered them.
On Obasanjo and Jonathan’s support
When I became the Minister of Agriculture in Nigeria, I went to President Obasanjo, who nominated me as minister, for wisdom. He said, ‘Akin, as you take up this job, there is just one thing that is so difficult, the fertilizer sector. It is so corrupt and risky, so do anything but whatever you do, don’t go there because it is very messy’. I looked at him and thanked him, because I considered him a father.
I thought I will get the courage of a general, but I went home and told my wife that we will fail except we end corruption in fertilizer in Nigeria. That was how we developed the electronic wallet system that we used to delivered seeds and fertilizer to over 50million farmers. We ended the corruption of 40 years in 90 days. Nigeria saw over 21million tonnes of additional food, we impacted lives of over 75 million people. I went back to Obasanjo, he said ‘you did not listen to me but I am glad you did not’.
I want to say I would not have succeeded without the big political support from President Jonathan. Without his political support, it would not have been possible. For such a reform, you need to have the backing of your president. It is not about stepping on toes. I told the president we were going to walk on people’s head. He had my back covered and for that I will for ever be grateful.
I want to thank President Obasanjo for nominating me a minister. I want to say something about Obasanjo and my wife that gets me into trouble. He calls me ‘Akin 45’ and my wife ‘Grace 55’. You may not understand what that means. He said 55% of my success is due to my wife and the rest is mine. And when I won the World Food Prize yesterday, I went to him and said, ‘Sir, I have been at 45% for a long time, what am I now?’ He said 46%.