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Adesina: I Will Not Rest until Africa Breaks out of Hunger

Adesina: I Will Not Rest until Africa Breaks out of Hunger


President of the Africa Development Bank and erstwhile Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, Dr. Akinwumi Adesina, recently emerged the 2017 World Food Prize Laureate. The prestigious $250,000 prize is given annually to a person who has worked to advance human development by improving the quality, quantity or availability of food in the world. In this interview with former presidential aide and THISDAY columnist, Reuben Abati, Adesina said the global recognition will spur him to do more to end hunger and poverty in Africa and the world. Excerpts:

 Congratulations on the award of the World Food Prize, known as the ‘Nobel Prize for Food and Agriculture’. It is a great moment for you and also for Nigeria, and for in fact the whole world. What does your recognition as the 2017 laureate mean to you?

Well, first and foremost I am very excited, what a great honor, what a global recognition, truly overwhelming, to be awarded the World Food Prize which as you know is seen as the Nobel Prize for Agriculture. I am humbled by the recognition you know, for my life-long work in helping to feed Africa and also to reduce poverty. It is a great honour for Nigeria where I come from; and a great honour for Africa as well. But I think to me the most important part of it is what it really means for the future, because I feel greatly inspired, I feel greatly motivated to go out and do even more. The World Food Prize offers me a global platform to continue to push my drive to end hunger and poverty, in Africa, and globally. Frankly, I will not rest until Africa breaks out of hunger and can feed itself and we end global hunger and poverty. For those two things I have actually dedicated my life, so there’s still much more work ahead to be done. This is not a job; it is a mission.

You are a great optimist about the future of Africa but in spite of all the best intentions and all that, Africa seems to be sinking more and more into the abyss of poverty and hunger. What is the way forward in real terms?

I think sometimes the narrative on Africa is often in the wrong direction. People think Africa is sinking, I don’t think Africa is sinking at all. I think Africa is making great progress; it’s just that it is difficult to end hunger. If you take for example the case on economic growth, Africa’s GDP today is growing at 3.4 percent, which is above the 2.2 percent from last year and next year we project that Africa’s GDP growth rate will be 4.3 percent. Bear in mind that those growth rates are much higher than the global growth rate so Africa is doing well.

It’s just that Africa needs to grow much faster than it is growing. And that growth must be inclusive. We’ve got to create jobs for millions of youth; transform rural economies and turn them from zones of economic misery to zones of economic prosperity. We’ve got to create hope, drive down poverty, because nobody eats GDP.

Now to your question about what is required in terms of feeding Africa, first and foremost I believe is the need for political will. Political will is the currency of development.

When you have political will, things happen and when leaders rise up things happen. Look at Asia, their leaders stood up and decided it was time to rapidly develop. Asia fed itself and today is a global powerhouse. African leaders must do the same. Second, we must change the lenses with which we look at agriculture. We must treat agriculture as a business. Africa must use agriculture to industrialize, add value to all of what it produces and end the exports of just raw materials. Africa produces 75% of the world’s cocoa beans but earns only 2% of the $100 billion annual global market for chocolates. The secret of the wealth of nations is clear: rich nations export finished products; poor nations export raw materials. Africa must get off the bottom of the value chains and get to the top of global value chains. Third, we must realize that getting agriculture right is central to macro-economic and fiscal stability of African nations. If you look at what is happening today, Africa is spending 35 billion dollars a year importing food and if we don’t do anything about that, the bad trajectory will definitely continue till 2025, when Africa will be spending 110 billion dollars a year importing food. It makes no sense because it means that Africa is spending hard earned foreign currency to buy what it can produce, what it should produce and what it should be exporting.

Agriculture is not something that we can leave just to the Ministry of Agriculture or just treat as a social sector. It is critical to how we achieve macro-economic and fiscal stability of our nations, it drives down inflation, it creates a lot of jobs, particularly in our rural areas.

The critical things that have to be done are: first ramp up access to high yielding technologies to millions of farmers so they can produce more. Then get the financial markets to work for farmers and agribusinesses. Support rural economies with massive infrastructure to make it attractive for the private sector agribusinesses to locate in those zones – what I call ‘Staple Crop Processing Zones’. Just like China used Special Economic Zones to totally transform its economy, so must Africa use Staple Crop Processing Zones to transform its rural economies, and create wealth and jobs at scale. Then we must get the young people to move into agriculture as a business. The youths are the future, and they will take agriculture and food business to a global level. These are some of the key things we did while I was Minister of Agriculture, which helped Nigeria to trigger a revolution of its agriculture sector. We need to keep pushing and expanding those frontiers. But at the end of the day, it is all about political will.

Let’s put it like this, since you assumed office as the President of the African Development Bank, what’s your take with regard to the political will, the commitment, the leadership in Africa with regard to all these issues you just outlined?

For example, we just held our annual meeting of the African Development Bank in India just last month, in Ahmedabad and the choice of this was particularly important given the experience of India in feeding itself. India used to be very poor with more than a billion mouths to feed. It looked impossible that at one point a Nobel Prize economist that said India is the number one problem of the world, it would never be able to feed itself, would never be able to drag down the high level of poverty that they have. But I wish that Nobel Prize economist was alive today because India turned itself around not in 15 years, not in 20 years, but in three years. Now India is a global powerhouse in food and agriculture.

So I think that the critical area of political will that I have seen is that since I took over as President of the African Development Bank, I have been helping African Presidents to understand that agriculture must be taken seriously as a business and I am beginning to see quite a lot in terms of interest from the many Presidents that I talk to. Since I took over as President of the African Development Bank, I have put agriculture, investment in agriculture, as one of the top five priorities of the bank, so we can feed Africa, and I have committed the bank that we are going to put 24 billion dollars in the agriculture sector over the next 10 years -that is 400% increase in investment of the Bank in the sector.

I think people are beginning to realise that agriculture now is not a development activity, it is something that can really help the economy to turn around and to achieve inclusive growth for them and to create a lot of jobs and to transform the rural areas. I have seen Heads of State telling me that now we are going to invest more in the agriculture sector because we now see that it’s going to be a huge revenue earner. What I tell them is if agriculture is not going to be a huge revenue earner; just take a look at the market, by 2030 the size of the food and agribusiness markets in Africa would be one trillion US Dollars. They are beginning to get that. And I am quite optimistic from what I’ve seen that agriculture in Africa has a bright future.

You are very passionate about the subject of child nutrition, what is your assessment of the condition of the African child today vis-à-vis the challenge of malnutrition?

Malnutrition is challenge in Africa. Today we have 58 million African kids that are malnourished and stunted. We’ve got 14 million kids that are wasted, in other words, with low weight for their age. We have another 10 million African kids that are also obese. Now what we don’t really understand about malnourishment and stunting is the fact that it is not a social issue, it is an economic issue. And that’s why I have raised it globally. And what I’ve said is that we can repair roads, we can repair rails, we can repair ports when they are damaged, because they are infrastructure, which of course you need to grow. But the brain is the most important infrastructure, which I call grey matter infrastructure. Now when the brain cells are damaged because of malnutrition of children you can never repair that for the rest of their lives. That’s lost earning, lost potential. When you have stunted children today you are going to have stunted economies tomorrow. It is very important therefore to see the investment in ending malnutrition as an investment in the economy.

Today, malnutrition and stunting alone cost Africa 25 billion dollars a year. And so it makes absolutely every sense to invest in making sure that our kids are well fed and that we reduce and eliminate the level of stunting. That is why we have put together at the global level what is called the African Leaders for Nutrition. This includes, myself, former President of Ghana, John Kufour, Aliko Dangote in Nigeria, Jamie Cooper of the Big Win Philanthropy, Bill Gates, and his wife Melinda Gates, Kofi Annan, the former UN Secretary General and the President of Madagascar. We are creating a movement to be able to draw attention to the need to end this malnutrition and stunting in Africa. The worst thing you can ever witness is a hungry child. No child should ever go to bed hungry.

We must ensure that babies are well nourished in the first 1000 days, when full breastfeeding is crucial. We need to empower our women. Healthy mothers help birth healthy nations. And so, it is very important to invest a lot in women. I am very passionate about this and that’s why at the African Development Bank, we have launched an initiative that is called the Affirmative Finance Action for Women in Africa to leverage three billion dollars for the women in Africa. I have never seen any bird that flies with only one wing, every bird flies with two wings. I feel that Africa will grow much faster, our economy will move faster when we actually give equality to women. And so this Affirmative Finance Action for Women in Africa is designed exactly to do that because when you empower the woman, you empower the home. When you empower women, you empower nations.

The world seems to have missed the Millennium Development Goal target on poverty and hunger more or less, and with world population projected to reach about 11 billion in 2050, are we not really losing the battle against food insecurity? Do you think that we can meet the target of ending hunger by 2030?

I absolutely think that we can.

You think that target is realistic?

I think it is realistic. Let’s get a number of things right. First and foremost, if you take a look at the amount of wastage that we have in the world today, the food wastage in the developed countries alone can feed probably about 600 million people. The food wastage in Africa alone every year is enough to feed 300 million people. And we have in Africa today 250 million people that are malnourished.

So first thing is that we simply need to prevent a lot of the food wastage, the losses on the farm, in storage, in transport and all along the value chain. Secondly, is that technology exists today to feed Africa and to feed the world. One of the things that I got excited about when I worked in Nigeria as Minister of Agriculture was what we did with regard to rice.

When I worked at the West African Rice Development Association in the 90s, I was part of a team that worked to develop varieties of rice called the New Rice for Africa (NERICA). They are great varieties. So when I became Minister we introduced those varieties to Nigeria and they were giving farmers five to six tons per hectare and that is what actually triggered the rice revolution in Nigeria. I got so excited that we distributed these varieties to six million farmers over four years. Everywhere we went, we saw rice farmers excited. The governor of Kebbi state told me they no longer counted rice in hectares but in kilometers. I went to Suru village and could not believe my eyes. Oh, the joy of those farmers! The rice revolution started, millers started growing in large numbers and local processed rice began to enter the market and even preferred to imported rice. We did the same for maize, rice, cassava, cocoa, cotton and other crops, as well as fish and livestock. So the technologies are there, we just have to get them into the hands of farmers out there.

Now third, we have got to realise that Africa is where the land left to feed the world would be. You see, 65% of all the remaining, uncultivated arable land in the world to feed people in the future is actually not in America, not in Japan, it’s not in China, not in Mexico, it is in Africa and so what Africa does with agriculture, what Africa does with food, is going to determine the future of food in the world. And that is why we must do everything possible to fully unlock the potential of agriculture in Africa.

You were Minister of Agriculture in Nigeria, what is your assessment of the current administration’s agricultural programme because it would look like some of the policies you introduced have not been sustained. I don’t want to put words in your mouth, what is your assessment?

You know I never play politics with food and agriculture, never did and never will. I just want Nigeria to be great. Some of the policies are being continued, which makes be pleased, but there are still challenges and a lot of work is still needed until we fully unlock the great potential of Nigerian agriculture. It is always work in progress. I think, for example, some of the things that we have done in Nigeria while I was there have now gone global. Take for example the e-wallet system that we developed in Nigeria to get access to seeds and fertilizer for farmers through vouchers on their mobile phones. That system allowed us to end corruption within the fertilizer and seeds sector in Nigeria. It put farmers at the center and boosted the private sector. We also were able to reach over 15 million farmers within a period of 4 years and it allowed us to increase the food production in the country, by an additional 21 metric tonnes.

Today, Afghanistan is now using the same e-wallet to be able to get to their farmers, with the support of the World Bank. Now we have started to roll out the e-wallet system in Africa through the African Development Bank, we are going into 30 countries working with Ministers of Finance and Governments..

Another great innovation from Nigeria which is rapidly taking off across Africa, is how to accelerate access to finance for farmers and agribusinesses, how to get commercial banks excited about agriculture. While I was Minister in Nigeria, we developed the NIRSAL initiative to reduce the risk of lending by banks to the agriculture sector. It worked with huge success and it continues to be a huge success. I am very proud about the work that we were able to do there, myself and Sanusi Lamido, who is now the Emir of Kano to get all that started. That has now been moved into Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Benin, Togo, Liberia, Ghana and we are expanding to some 30 countries. So you can see that the great work in Nigeria is inspiring more of the other countries and I think the most important thing is to have continuity of policies and continue to scale up from what has been done.

The ADB supported Nigeria with about a billion dollars for budget 2016 and there is a promise to provide more funds in the area of infrastructure development, security in the northeast and food security in the country generally. The ADB asked for some reforms and some have been carried out, how soon are you providing the other tranche of that1 billion dollars?

Well, first and foremost, is that I want to commend the government for the economic recovery reform framework that they have put forward. I think that that is something that I can really commend and I think you can’t go far unless you have macro-economic stability. As you know, we committed to provide a billion dollars and we provided already 600 million dollars and it is remaining 400 million dollars, contingent of course on necessary reforms on the monetary policy side, and on the fiscal policy side. I think we are quite enthusiastic that all the policy commitments will be finalised, so that us, and the World Bank, IMF and others that are committed to supporting Nigeria can go along, for the next steps that need to be done. It is a well-coordinated effort between us. We look forward to the conclusion of these policy reforms so that we can get the rest of what needs to be done started.

In many of your speeches since you assumed office as President of the African Development Bank you have been asking not for aid for Africa but investment but where should the push come from given the various challenges with power and other infrastructure in Africa?

I want the world to stop seeing Africa from the aid or development perspective, but to see Africa as the next growth frontier in the world. There is some 5 trillion dollars annually in global savings pool, but fixing Africa’s infrastructure gap especially for power and transport requires $50 billion annually. If Africa simply attracts 1% of this, it will fill its infrastructure investment gap. That’s why I am focused on how we can leverage global pension and sovereign wealth funds, and those in Africa, towards more investments in infrastructure in Africa. At the top of the list is fixing the power problem. Today, 645 million Africans do not have access to electricity. It makes no sense. How can it be that 138 years after Thomas Edison developed the light bulb, we are struggling to light the bulb in many parts of Africa? We have committed at the African Development Bank that over the next 10 years we are going to help African countries to solve this particular problem of power to achieve universal access to electricity. And so we have committed to investing 12 billion dollars over the next 5 years in the power sector and to leverage anything between 45 and 50 billion dollars from the private sector.

Africa is the place to be. Think of the continent where household consumption will rise to 1.4 trillion dollars in the next 4 years. Think of the continent where business-to-business expenditure will rise to 3.5 billion dollars in the next 8 years. Think of the continent where the population of the youths will reach 840 million by 2050. They will all be demanding consumer goods and services. Don’t think far, think Africa!

I know that the ADB is investing a lot in climate change issues to support African countries particularly the ones most affected by drought and famine. What do you think of the decision of the United States under the Trump administration to pull out of the Paris agreement on climate change and the implications for African countries which seem to be most affected by the issues of hunger, climate change, drought and natural disasters?

You know climate change is not theory for Africa; climate change is not some nebulous concept as far as Africa is concerned. Climate change is real and Africa lives with it every single day. Africa contributes only 2% of global greenhouse gas emissions but suffers its consequences more. And my position here and it has always been that Africa which has been short-changed by climate change should not be short-changed by climate finance, because it needs finance to be able to adapt to the consequences of climate change.

Developed countries are growing fast, emitting huge amounts on greenhouse gases and Africa is suffering the consequences of it. I think that the huge amount of greenhouse gas emissions from developed countries is choking the lungs of growth of African economies. Some African countries are facing droughts and risks of famine, including Nigeria, Kenya, Ethiopia and Sudan, and we must move fast so that droughts do not lead to famine. Africa needs a lot of finance to adapt to climate change and developed countries should meet their promised financial obligations to help support developing countries, especially Africa, to adapt to climate change.

It’s been quite a journey for you; your personal experience has been quite exciting from a humble background to the world stage and now a global prize. What motivates you?

My motivation actually comes always from God because I have always felt that the most important thing I could do in my life is to support the poor and to help lift millions of people out of poverty. I have always said that life is not about me, but about how I use the gifts God has given me to serve others. I am simply an instrument in God’s hands. That has always been my motivation. So when I picked agriculture, I saw it as something that inspires and can help resolve many things by changing the fortunes of people in rural areas especially the poor. It comes out of my own life. I come from a poor background. My father grew up as a poor farmer and was fortunate to have made it out of the village, went to school at an old age and joined the bottom ranks of the public service. We grew from there.

For me, poverty was real and so when I went on to study agriculture in the university, it was not my Dad’s choice. I was 14 years old and my father always filled my forms for me. Everything had to be medicine, first choice, veterinary medicine, second choice, third choice, dentistry, so one way or the other for him, I had to be a doctor. But the university always offered me agriculture, and not medical school. This happened three times in a row. The third time my father said “God must really want you in agriculture.” And so I studied agriculture and went on to complete my Ph.D in agricultural economics at Purdue University in the United States, so my Dad always called me Doctor. But when our son graduated from medical school in the US, my Dad who was 90 years old at the time came for the graduation ceremony. While my son and I were speaking, my dad said Doctor. I said Yes Dad, but he said “I don’t mean you, I mean your son, the real doctor”. Oh well, I told my Dad, even medical doctors will tell you to take your tablets, three times a day, but only after food, so agriculture is more important than medicine!

When you got the Green White Life Achievement award in Washington DC you dedicated that award to your son whom your dad described as the real doctor because he studied medicine, which your dad originally wanted you to study. So who are you likely to dedicate this particular award to, the World Food Prize?

You know, honestly, when I think of my life, I really wouldn’t be who I am today without so many people. My father and mother sacrificed so much to give me education. I am grateful to my late father-in-law Dr. Oloruntoba who was a great inspiration and mentor. I won’t be where I am today without my wife, Yemisi. You know, she is my supporter, she’s been a counselor, an inspiration, and even when I was in Nigeria, she was the pillar of strength. So my wife is number 1 and that’s for sure. But I want to also say that I am also so grateful for the amount of support I have received from so many people, a lot of people in Nigeria. I am very grateful to President Jonathan who actually picked me from out of nowhere and made me Minister and strongly supported me. I am very grateful to President Obasanjo who actually nominated me to be a Minister and Sanusi Lamido, the then Governor of the Central Bank, now Emir of Kano, who passionately supported me. I am very grateful to the farmers of Nigeria, the dedicated members of the Agricultural Transformation Agenda team, my former staff in the Ministry of Agriculture, the members of the press, the Governors and National Assembly members in Nigeria, who supported me, the youths, the banks and the private sector. And Nigerians supported strongly. It was such a huge collective effort.

I did not get here alone. I am also grateful as well I must say to the others whose support actually got me to where I am today, where I can do more for Africa and do more for the world. You know, when I was gunning for the Presidency of the African Development Bank, I got support and encouragement from former President Jonathan, from General Gowon, General Abdusalam, President Obasanjo, former Vice Presidents Atiku Abubakar and Namadi Sambo, my state Governor, Governor Amosun and most of all I got such strong support from President Buhari. I am proud to be a Nigerian and as President of the African Development Bank, I want to see that Africa shines and Nigeria shines. At the global level, Kofi Annan, former UN Secretary General, Bill and Melinda Gates, my former bosses and colleagues at the Rockefeller Foundation and the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) played major roles in my career. My thanks also go to my many teachers who lectured me and guided me to find my passion. To God, who is my helper, I dedicate all I have and ever hope to be.

Congratulations, Dr. Adesina, all the best. Thank you for making Nigeria and Africa proud.

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