PROFILE: Can Akinwumi Adesina save Africa?

by Wilfred Okiche

 

Everybody loves a winner.

Akinwumi Adesina is on a hot winning streak. Everybody loves him.

The president of the African Development Bank (AfDB) and former Minister for Agriculture and Rural Development was formally presented with a Laureate sculpture after being named the 2017 World Food Prize Laureate. This honour was administered by the World Food Prize Foundation at a high profile ceremony held in Des Moines, USA at the Ohio State Capitol, that gave new meaning to the term ‘’Proudly Nigerian.’’

Adesina wore his signature bow tie, a green one this time, dual symbolism for both his country of origin and the industry which he has worked in for the last twenty-five years, steadily building his profile as an agricultural economist, international development expert and academic authority. His wife, Grace and mother of their two sons, cut a resplendent figure, easily standing out in her green aso oke. Singer Omawumi, also in green, but a darker shade, worked the crowd, performing music from her latest album, Timeless.

Former President, Olusegun Obasanjo who recommended Adesina to his former mentee, President Goodluck Jonathan, thereby facilitating Adesina’s eventual return to Nigeria to serve as cabinet minister, nearly stole the show, as he shimmied graciously to the soothing melodies of Adunni & Nefertiti, the stellar female folk group from Nigeria.

John Mahama, immediate past president of Ghana was present, accompanying Adesina on the dais while he received the sculpture. US Vice President, Mike Pence, represented by the USAID Administrator, Mike Green, sent a congratulatory message thanking Adesina for his ‘’commitment and contributions to make the world a better place.’’

Iowa state Governor, Kim Reynolds, in her official proclamation, described Adesina as ’’one of the most dynamic leaders in promoting food security and inspiring young people not only in Africa but around the world.’’

Back home, President Buhari, sent his felicitations. So did Adesina’s less than inspiring successor in the Ministry of Agriculture, Audu Ogbeh. Responding in June 2017, when the prize was first announced, board chair of the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation (GAVI) and Senior Adviser at Lazard, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, with whom Adesina worked with as minister, hailed the achievement as ‘’A proud day for Nigeria.’’

Adesina is the 46th recipient of the World Food Prize and the sixth African to win, following in the footsteps of countries like Ghana, Ethiopia and Sierra Leone. He accepted the award and pledged the prize money, all $250,000 of it, to starting a fund fully dedicated to providing grants, fellowships and financing to young Africans interested in doing work that positions agriculture as a business. Beneficiaries of this fellowship will be called the Borlaug-Adesina fellows, in honor of late Nobel Prize Winner, Norman Borlaug, the renowned scientist and father of the ‘’Green Revolution’’ who conceived the World Food Prize and acted as a mentor to Adesina earlier in his career.

Doing the work

This broad gesture from Adesina is far from surprising. Even though it falls in line with best standards, as expected from recognitions of this pedigree, it feels like a natural continuation of the work that Adesina has made his life goal, achieving food for all, with a particular bias for ensuring that Africa achieves self-sufficiency.

It is the work that Adesina has been doing his entire career, from stints in the West African Rice Development Association (WARDA), to the Rockefeller Foundation, in the development sector and inside big government. Adesina has passionately spearheaded successful and not-so-successful policies that provide significant support for farmers especially in areas of access to finance and credit, access to agricultural technologies like improved seeds, as well as investment in agriculture from both public and private sector.

Adesina was born into poverty in Ibadan, on the 6th of February 1960, in a one-room house, without electricity, to a line of unskilled workers who laboured in farms owned by other people. Adesina’s father, Rotimi was a beneficiary of the generosity of a relative who ferried him to Lagos to commence schooling at the renowned Igbobi College. He didn’t learn to read till the age of fifteen. The older Adesina would eventually start a career in the civil service and was able to send his son to the local school.

Adesina studied Agricultural Economics at the Obafemi Awolowo University where he graduated with First Class Honors, thus kicking off a high flying career in the academic and development circles. He proceeded on scholarship to Purdue University in Indiana where he was awarded a Masters degree (1985) and a Ph.D. (1988), also in Agricultural Economics. His academic excellence was consistent, as he won the prize for the most outstanding thesis.

Fresh-eyed and hungry for challenges, Adesina had always envisioned a career in Agriculture. He started his post-doctoral career as an assistant principal economist in the International Crops Research Institute for the Semiarid Tropics, before moving to Bouake, Ivory Coast, to the West Africa Rice Development Association. After that, for a period of five years, Adesina was the Social Science Coordinator for the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture (IITA).

Associated with the Rockefeller Foundation since 1988 where he won a senior scientist fellowship that followed shortly after earning his doctorate, Adesina worked as the representative of the Rockefeller Foundation for the southern African area. He would eventually be promoted associate director for food security at the foundation and in 2008, Adesina was named the Distinguished Agricultural Alumni award by Purdue’s College of Agriculture.

The next big move was to the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), a multi-million dollar collaboration between the Rockefeller and Bill & Melinda Gates Foundations, where Adesina resumed as Vice President (policy and partnerships.) In this capacity, Adesina led several policy and innovative finance initiatives, leveraging about $4 billion in bank finance commitments, one of the largest global efforts to redirect domestic bank finance towards Africa’s agriculture sector. These funds were ploughed into boosting soil fertility, seed availability and improving market access for smallholder farmers.

Speaking to The Worldfolio in 2012, Adesina outlined his vision, “The key for successful reform is to turn agriculture into a business that makes money, with a focus on investment, as opposed to aid and development. We need to move towards focusing on particular value chains in which we have a traditional comparative advantage.”

The farmer’s minister

Nigerian history is littered with technocrats who triumphed in the private and development sectors but found themselves hopelessly outclassed and outmanoeuvred by the daily mundanities of working in the Nigerian public sector.

Akinwumi Adesina isn’t one of those people.

It is tricky making the transition but in 2010 when Adesina received the call asking him to come back home to walk his talk, he attacked his riskiest challenge with all the passion and intensity that characterised his development work. Used to advising government and making recommendations from the periphery, he was now being thrust into the arena, to supervise a lumbering ministry comprising 46 parastatals and over five thousand workers.

Not all of Adesina’s policies were a hit, naturally.

There was something a tad unsettling about his charm offensive and apparent love for the cameras, which came across as a bit smarmy. There was no missing photo opportunities with the likes of Bill Gates and other big donor ‘’saviour’’ friends of the continent; par for the course for development workers. Adesina’s watertight connections in international circles would later prove to be of value during his campaign to head the African Development Bank.

His much-touted cassava flour and bread, a product of his ministry’s import substitution policy was severely derided. Adesina was attacked by environmental conservationists for being in bed with western proponents of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) championed by big agro company, Monsanto, even in the absence of a sufficient biosafety law to ensure compliance and regulation.

Environmental activist, Nnimmo Bassey, director of the Health of Mother Earth Foundation chided Adesina and his counterpart in the Science and Technology ministry. According to him, they ‘’ought to protect the interests of the citizens of Nigeria and not pander to the desires of the makers of genetically engineered products.’’

There was some success though, plenty of it actually.

Adesina was easily one of the leading lights of the Goodluck Jonathan administration. A high water mark for him and his ministry was the abrupt termination of 40 years of corruption in fertilizer subsidies. Adesina is credited with developing and implementing an innovative electronic wallet system that directly provides farmers with subsidised farm inputs at scale using their mobile phones. This electronic wallet system which arose as a result of Adesina’s work on his Master’s thesis, has reached about 15 million farmers and about 2500 agribusinesses in Nigeria.

Cellulant Corporation, the Nigerian company which rolled out the electronic wallet system has also moved into Togo, Liberia and Afghanistan to replicate the technology. Adesina’s African Development Bank has plans of scaling the electronic wallet up to about 30 countries within the continent.

Adesina is totally convinced that agriculture should be run as a business and not an aid-dependent industry and his ministry formulated policies that keyed into this vision. At the end of his tenure, he had successfully attracted about $5.6 billion in private sector investment commitments. Food imports declined from 1.1 trillion Naira in 2009 to 684 billion in 2013.

Adesina led financing initiatives to support youth engagement in agriculture as well as small and medium enterprises (SMEs). His watch marked a period of boom for Nigeria as food production expanded by 21 million metric tonnes, far surpassing the 20 million metric tonnes target set out at the start of his tenure.

Friend of young people

As minister, Adesina was widely regarded as a friend of the youth. In his team, he employed superstars like Ada Osakwe and Debisi Araba to advice on policy. The result of their work can be seen in initiatives like the election-friendly, Youth Employment in Agriculture Programme (YEAP) which aimed to deploy 740,000 market-oriented young agricultural producers in rural areas.

YEAP also attempted to develop University graduates through a scheme called Nigerian Agricultural Entrepreneurs (Nagroprenuers). This was conceived to help young agribusiness entrepreneurs to develop businesses along the entire agricultural value chains. From the farm, storage, processing and value addition, financial services and logistics, young people were encouraged to get in.

Pop star D’banj was named ambassador for the Nagroprenuers Initiative to help rally the youth while passing the image that agriculture can indeed be sexy.

Former United Nations Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, in 2010, named Adesina one of 17 world leaders to galvanise international support for the now rested United Nations Millennium Development Goals.

The farmer’s banker

While in government, Adesina expressed his intentions of hopping on his next big wave, the soon to be vacant position of the AfDB. Jonathan assembled a team led by Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala to galvanise support for one of their own.

The campaign took the team round the continent and across the world as they lobbied, cajoled and threatened. Nigeria has the largest shares in the AfDB. Adesina’s selling points were his stellar performance in public office, friends in high places, pedigree as a development expert, and ability to speak both English and French. Incoming President Muhammadu Buhari also put forward his support.

In the final vote, the former minister won 60.5% of the regional vote and 58.1% of the total vote, beating Cabo Verde’s Cristina Duarte and Chad’s Kordjé Bedoumra. He was elected the 8th president of the AfDB, to serve an initial five-year term and became the first Nigerian to head the bank.

At the AfDB, Adesina has been quite the busy bee, coming up, together with his team, and presenting the High Fives Initiative to tackle power, agriculture, industrialisation and integration amongst others. His simplified plan is a three-step approach. In his opinion, Africa has to learn to feed itself, then industrialisation must follow shortly and achieve competitiveness in exports.

Inspired by his work in Nigeria, Adesina’s AfDB launched the ENABLE Youth Programme, which in 2016, provided $8m to eight countries to produce 10,000 young graduate agribusiness entrepreneurs. ‘’We want people that are going to be like the Aliko Dangotes of food in Africa and what we are trying to do in that programme is to reduce the risk of lending to them. Bank on the young people; they are the future,’’ Adesina told Punch newspaper excitedly.

Feed the world

Buoyed by his sense of place in this world, Adesina faces daunting challenges as he makes use of all the resources and skill at his disposal to try to change the world, from his corner of Africa. As his thematic areas continue to widen, he remains committed to agriculture, and the daunting challenge of achieving a Green Revolution on the continent will continue to keep him awake at nights.

Successes are constantly being threatened. After steadily declining for over a decade, global hunger is on the rise again, affecting 815 million people in 2016 according to the United Nations. This increase, representing 38 million more people than the previous year, is mostly due to the escalation of violent conflicts plus climate change activities. Africa is a hotbed of most of these negative activities

This job that Adesina has chosen is daunting and complex, too much for only one man but Akinwumi Adesina is unyielding. While accepting the World Food Prize, the Laureate rededicated himself to the good fight. ‘’There will not be any rest for me until Africa feeds itself.’’ He declared.

He may be setting himself up to fail, but someone once said the world is changed by those who are crazy enough to think they can.

Akinwumi Adesina may be one of those people.

The writer tweets from @drwill20

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