The President of the African Development Bank and a former Minister of Agriculture, Dr. Akinwumi Adesina, who received the 2017 Norman E. Borlaug World Food Prize last week, speaks on the need for Africa to focus more on agriculture in this interview with TOBI AWORINDE

Can you describe the moment you found out you had been selected as the 2017 World Food Prize laureate?

I got a call from Ambassador (Kenneth) Quinn, who is the Chairman of the World Food Prize Foundation. He said, ‘Will you be coming to Iowa (in the United States) this year?’ I normally go for the World Food Prize event.  I said, ‘I am not sure I will be able to make it this year because of my schedule.’ He said, ‘You may want to consider coming this year because it is going to be a very special one.’ I said, ‘Well, every Iowa World Food Prize event is always special. So, if I get the time, I will come.’ He said, ‘This time, it’s really about you and I think that’s special.’ That’s how I found out.

I was so elated to hear that — obviously, enormously honoured to be selected as the World Food Prize laureate. For me, it’s great to be recognised for all the decades of work I have done on agriculture, fighting to lead millions of people out of poverty. That is my whole life’s mission anyway – it’s to help to lead millions of people out of poverty. But I think the world’s food crisis has given further inspiration, a lot more wind behind my sail, in a drive to make sure we have a world that is hunger-free, an Africa that can feed itself completely and be a global powerhouse to food and agriculture.

You are described as ‘Africa’s Dr. Norman E. Borlaug’. Borlaug was the founder of the World Food Prize and the 1970 recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize for his devotion to feeding billions around the world; how much of a burden or blessing would you say comes with this ‘chieftaincy title’ of sorts?

It is quite humbling to be compared to Dr. Borlaug (now deceased). This was a man who through his work led the Green Revolution in Asia and Latin America that fed a billion people; nobody has ever been able to do that. He was a great mentor of mine and I got a lot of inspiration from Dr. Norman Borlaug. I remember when I came to Nigeria in 2006, President (Olusegun) Obasanjo was there at that time. I put together a summit, ‘Africa Fertiliser Summit,’ and we wanted African heads of state to basically stand up to have an African green revolution because I don’t think our independence is complete unless we are able to feed ourselves and do so with pride. So, I went to President Obasanjo at that time and asked him for help. So, we had the Africa Fertiliser Summit in Abuja and Dr. Borlaug then was 90 years old; he came to Abuja and rammed (his fist) on the table. He banged it twice and said, “I want to see a green revolution in Africa before I die.”

All the heads of states were startled. President Obasanjo ran to the stage and forgot to wear his shoes. He held Dr. Borlaug by the hand and said all the heads of states had better listen because no one wanted to be responsible for killing Dr. Borlaug because he wanted a green revolution before he died. That was the kind of person Dr. Borlaug was. I feel that I can only draw inspiration from that. For me, there will be no rest until we are able to feed Africa. It is a great task but I am not alone. There are so many soldiers for a green revolution in Africa; so I am confident we will be able to do it.

The mission to industrialise will be futile without African integration, as in Europe, and without tackling the bane that is government interference. Where lies the solution to these economic ideals for Africa?

I think that when it comes to the issue of agriculture, in particular, we’ve looked at agriculture with the wrong lenses for too long in Africa, We look at it has a way of life, as some kind of a development and social sector. It’s absolutely not. Agriculture is a big money-making sector and it’s supposed to lead millions out of poverty. The first thing is for African leaders to change their perspective on agriculture and to realise that agriculture as a business is critical to how you actually have strong macro-economic environment and good fiscal stability of countries. Agriculture is the heart of how economies function. It creates job, transforms rural areas, leads millions out of poverty, and keeps inflation down. Actually, if you get agriculture going very well, the job of the central bank governor is very easy. You basically keep inflation very low.

I think a number of issues have to be dealt with to tap it fully. First is the issue of regional integration that you talked about. Africa is made up of 54 countries. You have some of them in Nigeria that have coasts. You have to connect those in the coastal area to those that are not connected to the coasts. Investment in infrastructure is the key – ports, rail, transnational highways are critical to being able to do that. Now, the size of regional trade in Africa is actually very small – it’s roughly about 15 per cent but if you look at the North American Free Trade area, which of course they are renegotiating now, it is well about 45 per cent. In Asia, it is about 60 to 65 per cent. In Europe it is about 80 per cent. So, Africa still has ways to go.

As far as I am concerned, all those borders we have are artificial and all walls need to come down for Africa to really be able to create bigger markets. If you have bigger markets, a person can invest in multiple countries at the same time; you will be able to exchange skilled labour across the continent in a very easy way. You will find that Africa’s ability to negotiate with other continents will be much stronger. I remember when I was younger, my mother gave me a broom and told me, “You can never sweep with one strand at a time.” For Africa to really move fast in the world, it has to move with the whole broom, the whole 54, and for that, all the walls must come down.

What is the significance of the World Food Prize for the African Development Bank and how can it potentially be leveraged for African development?

It’s a great honour to be the president of the AfDB and to be the first person that is the president of a multi-lateral development bank that comes from an agricultural background. I am an economist who works in agriculture. I see agriculture as central to how our economies will function better. For us at AfDB, we have five strategies on how we want to help transform Africa. We call them the High Fives: Light up and Power Africa, Feed Africa, Industrialise Africa, Integrate Africa and Improve the Quality of Life in the People of Africa.

When you come to the issue of agriculture, agriculture has the highest power to essentially lead millions out of poverty. At the AfDB, we recognise that agriculture will help to transform the rural economies and that is critical because a lot of the poor in Africa are stuck in the rural areas.  Many of the rural areas have become zones of economic misery. I am not surprised that we have a lot of terrorists operating in many of the rural areas because people have no hope and no jobs. The young people are discouraged. What we’ve got to do is to use agriculture as a way to boost hope and create economic opportunities in our rural areas, creating jobs for the people.

That is why at the AfDB, we launched a strategy called the Feed Africa strategy. Its purpose is to make Africa self-sufficient with food in 10 years. Why not? We’ve got the land, cheap labour, fantastic sunshine and everything we need to do this. I think God loves Africa so much. I believe what we ought to do is deploy the right technology, have the right infrastructure, good market, good financing, have the political will to develop and get it done by agriculture.

The bank is investing $24bn in the agriculture sector and agribusiness over the next 10 years. We believe when we get that done, you will see a lot more inclusive growth in this continent. This World Food Prize is important to us as it puts the wind behind our sail in what we are trying to do.

The 10-year strategy seems as daunting as it is ambitious. What went into the selection of these specific goals and why 10 years?

First and foremost, I believe Africa is already late and everything about Africa has to move faster. There must be a sense of urgency. I cannot accept that Africa in the 21st century does not have universal access to electricity. You cannot develop in darkness. Sometimes, I think that we’ve gotten used to bad things. Abnormal things have become normal. It’s not normal not to have electricity; more than 140 years after the development of the light bulb, we are still trying to light it up. I think that what’s important is that we do things at scale and do it faster because Africans can’t wait. They have waited too long.

Take the case of electricity in African countries: 645 million Africans do not have access to electricity. That’s mind-boggling! Without electricity, kids can’t go to school; hospitals can’t function; industries can’t work, and it kills the economy. My view is that electricity is like blood in your arteries. If you have blood in your arteries, you have life. If you don’t have blood in your arteries, you are dead. Economies without electricity are pretty much dead economies, as far as I am concerned. I want African economies to industrialise, to create a lot of jobs. I want African economies to be competitive and we can’t do this without electricity.

So, we have set a goal to move Africa to have universal access to electricity in 10 years. That is why, as a bank, we are putting in $12bn into that sector in the next five years with the hope of leveraging $45bn to $50bn towards that. I am confident that with the kind of political will I see from African leaders, the investment I see from African investors in the private sector, and the kind of pressure the young people are putting on the leaders to make the development faster, we have no choice because they can’t wait. We are already too late.

How is the Feed Africa programme impacting on the Homegrown School Feeding Programme in Nigeria?

The challenge Africa has is that we have malnutrition and stunting in children. People may not realise what that means in economic terms but it is actually devastating. Stunting alone costs Africa over $25bn per year, and when a child is stunted, it means their ability to learn is compromised – the cognitive abilities as well. Stunted children today will give you stunted economies tomorrow. We’ve got to make sure that not only must we feed kids, we must give them what they need to be able to grow properly and to be healthy and to be productive citizens that will contribute to the economy in the future. A lot of kids are so hungry and can’t concentrate in school. I am a big believer that God didn’t create stomachs to be empty. He created them to be well fed. There is nothing that breaks my heart more than a child looking to his mother and saying, “Mama, my tummy is hungry.”

I believe school feeding programmes are very important. Brazil had a zero hunger programme. They feed all their kids. The key is how you do school feeding programmes based on a productive agriculture. You cannot give what you don’t have; so you must first increase productivity of agriculture massively. Households must have enough to sell and feed themselves. A kid just doesn’t need food to eat at school; they need food at home as well. When parents have enough resources, they take great care of their kids. I know that because I grew up in poverty. I know poverty is not pretty.

In Nigeria, we are supporting the government of President (Muhammadu) Buhari in agriculture. We are providing very strong support with infrastructure, particularly on power. We are supporting the efforts to ensure the private sector gets access to finance. At the end of the day, we are very supportive of making agriculture a big business in Nigeria and across the continent. That is what I did when I was the Minister of Agriculture in Nigeria. I believed so much in the power of agriculture to lead millions out of poverty, especially the parents of poor kids. If their parents can have money to send their kids to school, I believe it would be worth every effort.

The school feeding programme, which served as a cardinal election promise of President Muhammadu Buhari, has yet to kick off in most states more than halfway into the administration. What do you think are the challenges and how can they be solved?

If you look at countries that have done school feeding programmes very well, one thing is fundamental: you first have to boost food production significantly — massively. So, it is the surplus of that that you are able to use to do school feeding programmes. So, I think the challenge really is how to accelerate access to technologies at scale, boost a lot of food production, and then let farmers have the surplus they need to be able to do that.

The second thing I think is very important also is that if well done and farmers have access to the right technologies, they can provide to a school feeding programme access to markets for farmers in the rural areas. I also think that one of the things that are very important is to make sure that the state governments not only buy into it politically, but also show commitment to investment. And I think (former) President Obasanjo should be highly commended for the vision he had at that time to start school feeding programmes. It was a great vision and I think that we all owe it as a responsibility to have zero hunger in Nigeria. And I commend President Obasanjo’s leadership in pushing for this zero hunger. The AfDB supports his panel, which he chairs, on making sure that we have zero hunger in Nigeria.

So, three factors: one is boost production. You have to boost production massively and that has to reach millions of farmers if it is going to succeed. The second is investing a lot in storage systems because you may have a lot of food, but if you don’t actually store it properly and a lot of it goes to waste, then actually you are just wasting time. The other one is also to support the private sector in processing high-energy foods. A lot of school feeding programmes in the world rely on high-energy, processed foods. In Africa, 90 per cent of those processed foods are imported for school feeding programmes. But what do you need to make high-energy foods? Three things: you need maize, soybean and sorghum, which Africa produces in abundance and Nigeria also has in abundance.

When I was minister, I was very big on trying to get Nigeria to produce high-energy foods and we will continue to support Nigeria and other countries to do that because it’s no brain surgery in making high-energy foods from maize, sorghum and soybean. But we’ve got to support the private sector. So, the point I’m trying to make is that successful school is not just all about government. The private sector has to have a big role in making sure that nutritious foods are available to schools, and the government should encourage the private sector.

You often speak of Africa’s wasted potential, especially in cocoa production. How are you getting oil and mineral resource-dependent countries like Nigeria to turn to food processing in a bid to increase Africa’s meager two per cent quota of the over $100bn revenue that chocolates generate all over the world?

The size of the food and agriculture market in Africa is going to be worth $1tn by 2030. That is a lot of money to be made in Africa. We’ve got to really turn it into a money-making enterprise for African countries. So, you need agribusinesses that are functioning well in the agriculture sector. It is about looking at it differently, seeing it as a money-making sector and deploying the right types of policies and financing to unlock that potential of agriculture.

I want you to talk about credit facilities in terms of investments and increased productivity. Nigeria has a credit rating of B+ with Fitch and B1 with Moody’s. I know credit facilities is a huge factor in trying to scale up; how are you leveraging credit facilities in Nigeria and all over Africa so you can scale up faster?

The banking sector is not lending enough to agricultural sector. In fact, on the average, only about three per cent of total banking goes towards agricultural sector. One of the reasons for that is the high level of perceived risk. The key is to reduce the perceived risk of lending to the agricultural sector. It is also hard to lend to the sector because farmers don’t have secure access to land. Land is a fundamental asset you use as collateral for financing. I think it’s time for us to have good land titling, so farmers can use their land as collateral to borrow money. The third thing is that if you are trying to lend to agriculture, you have to fix the entire agricultural value chain. What I mean by that is, if you are lending to someone who produces tomatoes, which is a highly perishable product, but you are not lending to the person who will process the tomatoes into paste, then you are wasting time because the tomatoes will go to waste. By fixing the value chain and supporting those that are processing and adding value to food, you create a lot of markets for farmers.

When I was a minister in Nigeria — I am very proud of the work we put in place with the establishment of the Nigeria Incentive-based Risk Sharing for Agricultural Lending. I am very proud to have helped develop that with the current Emir of Kano, Muhammadu Sanusi II, when he was the Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria and working very closely with all the CEOs in the banking industry in Nigeria and it’s a huge success. Now, NIRSAL is being replicated in many African countries. The President of Benin came to me and we were talking; I said, “Why don’t you have a risk-sharing facility for lending?” And within two weeks, the AfDB supported them. It’s working in Benin. We’re doing that also in Ghana, Kenya, Tanzania, Liberia and many other African countries. You’ve got to make sure the farmers have access to affordable financing. But not just the farmers, the agribusiness needs access to long-term financing. The banking industry lends for the short term, but the kind of investments you make in agriculture require long-term investments. Therefore, you must have access to private equity funds that allows you to invest there. That is why AfDB is financing in Nigeria a private equity fund, Fund for Agriculture Finance in Nigeria. I actually set it up when I was the Minister of Agriculture in Nigeria and it is a huge success today. So, we have to combine access to microfinance, access to commercial bank financing, reducing the risk of lending, but also long-term, affordable finance for the private sector to work.

If you look at the issue of chocolates and the size of the cocoa production in Nigeria, Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire and Cameroon, they account for 75 per cent of all the world’s production of cocoa. But Africa is at the bottom of the coca value chain; we’re not processing and adding value to it. Part of it is lack of access to finance to fix the infrastructure problems that lead to that. And I am a big believer in the fact that if you have the right financing for agriculture – you industrialise agriculture, you will never find that kind of situation. If you look at the price of cocoa, it may decline, but never the price of chocolate. The price of cotton may go down, but never the price of textile and garments. And the price of coffee may go down, but never the price of specialty coffee.

One of your initiatives that revolutionised the agricultural sector in Nigeria is the electronic wallet, which is being replicated by the AfDB, the World Bank and other international organisations. What were some of the ‘roadblocks’ you experienced along the way to making a success of the e-wallet model?

The first challenge I had was that people didn’t really understand what we were trying to do in the beginning. People thought we were buying phones for farmers — we were not. What I saw was a system where there was massive corruption in the fertiliser sector. It had been going on for over 40 years. I saw that when I was a graduate student doing my master’s thesis in the United States because I looked at the impact of fertiliser subsidy policies in Nigeria, not on food production in Nigeria, but on food production in Niger Republic because the government-subsidised fertiliser always ended up on trucks making their way to Niger and neighbouring countries. I knew that the system was very corrupt; so when I came in as minister of agriculture, I said, “We’ve got to end this.”

Also, I want to thank (former) President Goodluck Jonathan for being strongly supportive of me because I said, “If we can’t stop this, we will not be able to change agriculture in Nigeria.” So, we had to turn to the power of the mobile phones. We registered the farmers digitally so that we could put a number to a farmer. We put all the input suppliers in the country on a digital platform and linked all of them to the banks in Nigeria. We gave risk-sharing facilities to banks so that they could lend to the input suppliers. Then, we used the mobile phones to deliver vouchers to buy seasoned fertilisers to farmers all across Nigeria. They could buy it right at their doorstep in Nigeria. It was revolutionary. We brought transparency, probity, accountability to public expenditure on fertiliser seeds in Nigeria, and within a period of four years, we reached over 15 million farmers in Nigeria. With an average family size of five for farmers, we’re talking about impacting over 75 million people.

Everywhere you went in Nigeria at the time, the farmers were very happy. There was seed and fertiliser all over Nigeria. That was why we were able to raise the food production in Nigeria so massively by an additional 21 million metric tonnes within a period of four years. What we are now doing with the technology of the e-wallet is, as you’ve said, the World Bank has now taken it to Afghanistan, where they are trying to reach a million farmers this year alone. The AfDB is also scaling it up to about 30 countries in Africa. It’s already operating in a few African countries. So, I’m very proud of it every time heads of states and ministers tell me, “We want to have the e-wallet in our country.”

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Publish date : 2017-10-21 23:15:23

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