Interview: “There has been a problem in the way we look at agriculture [in Africa].” says Akinwumi Adesina – AfDB president

Interview: “There has been a problem in the way we look at agriculture [in Africa].” says Akinwumi Adesina – AfDB president

Last year, the President of the African Development Bank (AfDB),  Akinwumi Adesina won the World Food Prize. His philosophy is not only that Africa has a true comparative advantage in this field but that agriculture should be viewed as a business opportunity as opposed to development. The agricultural sector, he points out, has made more billionaires than most industries. African Business caught up with him to find out more about his views on agriculture, one of the five priorities of the AfDB.

The Chinese and Indian agricultural landscapes were very similar to Africa at independence. Both these countries managed to bring about their green revolution. Do you feel this is going to happen in Africa?

There has been a problem in the way we look at agriculture. We have looked at agriculture as the sector for managing poverty, as a development sector. But in fact, agriculture is not a development activity, nor a social sector, but a business.

And I think it’s that approach – the opportunity in agriculture for business – that will allow us to transform that industry. It’s a business that allows you to transform rural economies and free millions from poverty.

It’s a business that allows you to earn foreign exchange and reduce your level of dependency on food imports. African leaders are beginning to get it that agriculture is centred on how they are going to get their economies to work. And that is what leads me to believe that the agricultural transformation we’re talking about is really going to happen.

The other thing is the importance of technologies. Today, we have rice varieties that allow people to produce about four or five times what farmers are currently getting.

We have cassava varieties that give you 80 tonnes per hectare compared to roughly about 20 tonnes per hectare. So, four times what farmers are currently getting. There are drought tolerant maize that allow you to get yields of 100% despite the presence of drought. We have all the technologies and what we’ve got to do now is take them to scale.

So, now at the AfDB, my focus is to make sure that we deploy technologies of scale to reach millions of farmers. Africa shouldn’t be thinking of feeding itself in 30 years, or 40 years – it should be thinking of feeding itself in 10 years.

We are putting $24bn, that’s a lot of money, behind agriculture in the next 10 years. It just tells you how seriously we consider this, because I think Africa must not only feed itself, but it must feed itself with pride.

You were at the Africa Fertiliser Summit back in 2006. Fertilisers destroy the natural habitat and damage the land and the water systems. What is the middle way that works for the African farmer?

The 2006 Africa Fertiliser Summit was a landmark event. One of the things that we agreed was that we had to build a network of agro-dealers and agro-input shops that will take fertilisers and seeds directly to the doorstep of farmers.

Today in Africa you literally have tens of thousands of them that we have created. The distance that farmers now travel to find seeds and fertilisers has declined tremendously, because of these rural input shops.

When I was at the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, and then when I became Minister of Agriculture in Nigeria, we set up risk sharing facilities that supported banks to lend to the agricultural sector, including fertiliser companies, seed companies and agro-dealers. Right now at the AfDB, we are helping to replicate this in 30 African countries.

We’ve already started a lot of this in many countries, but we are going to reach 30 African countries in a very short period of time. When it comes to the issue of supporting local manufacturing of fertiliser, I am thrilled by the developments in Africa since the Fertiliser Summit.

For example, Aliko Dangote is putting $5.6bn into what would be the largest urea plants in Africa, one of the largest in the world, in Nigeria. Remember he was only in cement, now he is into agriculture. In Morocco, they have expanded rapidly into fertiliser production and now Morocco and Nigeria are trading fertiliser phosphates massively.

And when it comes to the whole issue of regional procurement of fertilisers, we are working with a group called the Africa Fertiliser Partnership, which is helping countries to put together their own plans to be able to procure fertilisers jointly, so they can reduce the cost of importing fertilisers.

Without the African Fertiliser Summit and the agreement to have a green revolution, I don’t think that we would have done any of these things, because for 30 years before that time, everybody said that fertilisers were useless. But I don’t think that’s the case, I think the main problem we have in Africa is not the overuse of fertiliser. The problem in Africa is the lack of use of fertilisers. Africa has the lowest use of fertilisers in the world.

Despite employing 70% of the workforce, the industry is still small as a percentage of GDP and it is dominated by smallholder farmers. Will the structure need to change to contribute to the green revolution?

Part of the reason why African agriculture has been slow in developing is because the African smallholding farmers are not organised and so they don’t form big political pressure groups. Therefore, it’s easy for them to be forgotten by leaders. Leaders court their votes before elections, and afterwards they forgot them.

But look at France – if you forget the farmers in France, what do you get? You get trucks on the street. No president of France will ever toy with farmers. So, good organisation by farmers is very important for their voices to be heard. African farmers need to really, really, organise to be able to push their way.

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