Armed with international and government expertise, AfDB’s Akinwumi Adesina says growing food is what will help lead Africa out of poverty.
Akinwumi A. Adesina has just got off a transcontinental flight but shows no signs of jetlag whatsoever. He is immaculately dressed in a sharp suit complete with his trademark bowtie –a red one today – and is full of boundless energy. He is the man with substance, style and a sound bite for every occasion.
The 58-year-old cannot let long days or long flights rob him of the zest he needs to run a mammoth development bank in Africa.
“I am somebody who is focused in life. The only thing that gives me satisfaction is seeing people transform and not just in terms of one or two but in terms of tens of millions of people. That is what keeps me awake every day and that is what I do,” he says.
This tireless energy has led to his ascent as President of the African Development Bank (AfDB). He assumed office as the eight president of AfDB three years ago in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire.
Adesina’s reputation to deliver targets despite the odds has consistently earned him the moniker of risk-taker amongst his peers.
This was so even in 2010 when he took on as Nigeria’s Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development was asked to set targets for his term.
“I said in three years we would be able to produce for Nigeria an additional 20 million metric tons worth of food. And they said that is too high. The Minister of National Planning told the President [of Nigeria], and the President said ‘Akin, you have set such a high target, why don’t you cut it down a little bit’. I said ‘Mr. President, I was not elected, I was appointed. So if I say I can do something and I get all the support I need, then I have no reason to not achieve it and if I don’t, fire me’,” says Adesina.
By the fourth year, he produced 21 million tons of food exceeding his original target.
In 2013, Adesina won the FORBES AFRICA Person of the Year award for his bold reforms in Nigeria’s agriculture sector.
When Adesina was a student, his professor at university told him he would not gain admission to the prestigious Purdue University in the United States (US) because of his inability to solve a mathematical problem. Adesina cancelled his admission to Cambridge University, where he had already been accepted for his PhD, to take his professor up on his challenge.
“I did not know what Purdue University was at the time so I researched it and it turned out that it was a world-class institution. I decided to go there instead and I came back with a distinction in my PhD. I visited my professor to prove to him that I did not fail and that was my point made.”
At the time, his wife, Grace, had also gained admission to study for her PhD but opted to stay behind and take care of the home while Adesina attained his qualification.
“I am fortunate to have a fantastic wife who grounds me very well and goes through a lot of debates with me about what to do. She is an excellent partner. She is extremely sharp so I cannot debate anything or write a policy document without discussing with her and when I was minister, for example, before I would go to the federal cabinet with any paper, I would have a debate with Grace. Everything I do is a collective effort with Grace. And every success I get today, let’s say I will give 56% of the credit to her,” says Adesina.
That support has been a key pillar in Adesina’s success. His achievements speak of years of hard work.
Poverty was not an alien concept for young Adesina who grew up with four siblings in an area with poor sanitation and inadequate facilities. His deep, abiding connection to agriculture today goes back to his roots, and his ancestors.
His father was a farmer who taught Adesina that class did not matter and the importance of education as a social leveler. Adesina knew from an early age that he wanted to do something for the greater good of society.
“I have a sense of responsibility, that God put me on earth to do something. At the end of the day, I am an instrument. And so I must use my God-given talent to ensure I am able to help others, provide hope for others and make sure we bring hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. Nothing makes me happier than that.”
And to him, agriculture is the most powerful tool to reach that goal. According to Adesina, the African continent is spending about $35 billion on food imports alone resulting in a significant loss of jobs that could have been created had Africa been self-sufficient.
By 2030, the size of the food and agriculture business in Africa will be worth a whopping $1 trillion, he says.
“Agriculture is the coolest thing you can think about. Nobody drinks oil, but everybody eats food. So those that want to be millionaires and billionaires of Africa are going to come out of that sector. In agriculture, I believe that Africa can industrialize. Look at the Netherlands, they only have agriculture and that is one of the richest countries in the world.”
Lessons for life
Adesina earned his first-class honors bachelor’s degree in agricultural economics from the University of Ife, Nigeria, in 1981. In 1988, he completed a PhD in agricultural economics at Purdue in the US, where he won an Outstanding PhD Thesis Award for his research work. He also won the Rockefeller Foundation Social Science Post-Doctoral Fellowship in 1988, which launched his international career in agricultural development.
It was at Rockefeller in New York that Adesina would learn one of the biggest lessons in his career. After joining the foundation as a young scientist, Adesina was invited to lunch by his boss on his first day of work.
“I thought we were going to a great restaurant. We got to the side of the road and he saw the guys that were selling hot dogs for $1 and he bought it. He said ‘let us go back to the office’. We went back to the office and he said ‘what would you like to drink’ and I said ‘Sprite’. And he said ‘at Rockefeller Foundation, we don’t have Sprite, we have water’. And he gave me water and that was my lunch. He shook my hands and said ‘welcome to the business of managing a dead man’s assets. Find the sharpest mind you can find in the world, give them money to do great things and then get out of their way’.”
Adesina has never forgotten that lesson. He is passionate about finding the right team and empowering them to achieve greatness. His love for agriculture also led to several innovations in the sector that would empower farmers with financial assistance through the Rockefeller Center where we worked for a decade between 1998 and 2008.
Adesina became even more purposeful about looking for a long-term fix to poverty alleviation in Africa by building a viable and scalable model to provide financial assistance to farmers. When he served as Nigeria’s Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development from 2010 to 2015, he implemented bold policy reforms in the fertilizer sector and endorsed innovative agricultural investment programs to expand opportunities for the private sector. Here too, he took risks.
“We launched what was an electronic wallet system designed to register farmers in Nigeria at scale. I thought to myself ‘what is the most important thing I can do for the country as a minister’ and I felt I had to put farmers at the center of it. I went after the fertilizer cabals in Nigeria and we ended the corruption that was prevalent in the industry for 40 years. It took us 90 days and we took the power of mobile phones and registered about 15 million farmers in Nigeria and we were able to reach them directly to give them seeds and fertilizers.”
Another issue he had to tackle was the issue of bankers lending to farmers.
“If I was a farmer and I walked into a bank, all the banker will see is risk. I felt European farmers were supported by banks and African bankers should have the same privileges and be supported,” says Adesina.
He set up a $350 million lending facility that was backed by the Central Bank of Nigeria, which would reduce the risk of lending to these farmers by commercial banks, resulting in about $3.5 billion of financing for farmers in Nigeria.
Agriculture for continental change
Adesina says he sees himself as an agent for change.
“It is not about me. For example, take a look at electricity; my own philosophy of development or growth is very simple. I believe if I am not ashamed of something, then I am not going to change it. If I am ashamed of something, then I will change it. The very fact that Africa doesn’t have electricity makes me ashamed and the fact that Africa is not able to feed itself makes me ashamed so it is those things that drive me,” says Adesina.
Currently, the total production of power in Africa’s largest economy is about 5,000 megawatts compared to 44,000 megawatts for South Africa. Adesina has had a singular focus on leveraging the power of agriculture to transform the continent for the past decade.
Agriculture forms a significant portion of the economies of all African countries. As a sector, it can therefore contribute towards major continental priorities, such as eradicating poverty and hunger and boosting intra-Africa trade and investments, rapid industrialization and economic diversification. Adesina believes this should be the focus for Nigeria, if it is to achieve double-digit GDP growth.
“If you look at China, its ability to [take] 700 million people out of poverty was due to a faster and innovative growth rate. We must grow at double digits for a very long period of time. Secondly, we have to do a number of structural changes in the economy. Simply relying on oil is not good enough because oil prices continue to fluctuate and of course as this fluctuates, over 90% of government income is dependent on the sector, so it affects everything.”
He believes it is not only important to diversify the economy but most importantly, increase the productivity of the diversified economy. Currently, Small and Medium Scale Enterprises (SMEs) account for about 85% of the private sector and the fact that the productivity of that sector is very low is a major cause for concern for the Nigerian economy.
Are Nigerian youth lazy, banking on the notion that Nigeria is an oil-rich nation? Adesina disagrees.
“Nigerians are the most hard-working people I have ever seen in my life, they do not need too much of government help, they just need the government to supply the resources. So if you can fix the electricity problem, Nigeria’s entrepreneurial drive and capacity will work and industries will work.”
The prevailing narrative is that agriculture is everyone’s business and national independence depends on its development because it enables countries to escape the scourge of food insecurity and it provide employment for the youth. For Adesina, it is imperative to harness the power of this sector in order to achieve economic growth and development.
‘Not looking for a job’
With a distinguished career as a development economist and agricultural development expert with 25 years of international experience, in 2015, Adesina added a new milestone to his illustrious career by becoming the first Nigerian to serve as the President of AfDB against the backdrop of global and regional headwinds, including depressed commodity prices and the derailing Ebola epidemic that reduced tourism revenue for many economies in West Africa.
“When I was sworn in as president, I said to them I am not looking for a job. I said this is a mission to create prosperity for the continent, bring a lot of resources for the continent and make the continent happy,” he says.
And that is exactly what he has been doing for the past three years. Under his leadership, Adesina launched the ‘High Fives’ initiative which includes light Africa, feed Africa, industrialize Africa, integrate Africa and improve the quality of life of Africa.
“It sounds simple but the United Nations just did an analysis and concluded that if you focus on these five things, it will achieve 90% of the Sustainable Development Goals,” he says.
During his tenure so far, Adesina has restructured the AfDB as an accelerator for Africa’s Sustainable Development Goals while simultaneously leading big reforms at the bank. First on the agenda and perhaps most critical was ensuring the AfDB remains Africa’s premier development financial institution. The bank currently maintains a ‘Triple A’ rating by all four global credit rating agencies since Adesina took over as president.
This was swiftly followed by tackling the issue of declining income. In 2015, before Adesina joined the group, the bank’s income had declined to $492 million. Within a year, income grew and by 2017, it stood at $783 million.
“What really excites me is in terms of the impact we have had on people. In terms of electricity, just last year, we connected about 4.4 million people to electricity. In agriculture, we connected 8.5 million people to get access to better technology and in transport, where we invested in railway, it has helped about 14 million people. Water and sanitation are also very important and we have helped about 8.3 million people to have access to that,” says Adesina.
This has also helped transform the global perception of the bank. AfDB was rated the fourth most transparent bank in the world. His reforms have also improved employee satisfaction by moving it from a score of 82 out of 100 to fourth best company to work with in Africa (after World Bank, Chevron and Exxon Mobil) as per the 2018 Careers in Africa Employer of Choice Survey.
But what really keeps Adesina up at night is how the bank through entrepreneurship development can alleviate the issue of youth unemployment in Africa.
The biggest business in the world
“Sometimes we pass by gold all the time and see gold as dirt. And we look at agriculture like that when in fact it is the biggest business in the world. So for me I really want young people to be in agriculture as a business,” says Adesina.
Africa, the world’s youngest region, continues to be confronted with high levels of unemployment and poverty. According to data from the International Labour Organisation, in sub-Saharan Africa, the youth unemployment rate is at 12% with the African region accounting for the highest rate of working poverty – those who earn less than $2 a day.
According to the 2016 African Agriculture Status Report, the region’s rapid population growth is due to rising life expectancy and declines in death rates, particularly of children. Youth unemployment, vulnerable employment and working poverty levels in Africa are at an all-time high making youth employment an important policy priority in most countries on the continent. Consequently, there are more young people here than ever before.
Adesina believes this must be the focus of greater economic development.
“We have to catch people young. Look at how agriculture is projected in our movies. Every time they are depicted as poor and in villages so it conveys an impression that if you go into that area of business, you will be poor. So one of the things we have to do is to change that perception of agriculture. Some of the richest people in Europe and the USA are farmers.”
The second aspect is in the area of knowledge transfer. There are various business opportunities in the value chain of agriculture including processing, marketing, logistics, transportation and food retail. These represent big business opportunities for Africa’s youth who may not be interested in farming to still get involved in the business.
The third area Adesina believes we need to look at is technology.
“If you take a look at ecommerce today, people used to go to the market and still do but I can tell you in the very near future, most of what is called the open market will go down because people want to have different kinds of healthy food quickly. So people will be delivering food to people’s homes and they are not going to go to the markets anymore.”
Then finally comes the all-important issue of finance. One of the things Adesina did to tackle this was to set up a program, ENABLE Youth, to help youth focus on agriculture. Last year, the AfDB invested some $300 million in eight African countries to support young people to enter agriculture as a business, with a proposed roll-out to a further 30 countries on the continent.
Coming up in November is the first-ever Africa Investment Forum (AIF) in Johannesburg, South Africa, where Adesina will unveil plans of $120 billion as bankable projects for the African continent.
“It cannot be business as usual, it must be business unusual,” he had said when announcing the AIF in May.
Amongst African leaders, Adesina is a rarity with a forward-looking view of Africa.
What is the legacy he would like to leave? His answer is evocative and inspiring.
“I have always been proud as an African. I will live an African, die an African and resurrect as an African. And in the case of Nigeria, I will live a Nigerian, die a Nigerian and during the resurrection, opt to come out as a Nigerian as well with the green-white-green flag in my hand.”
A pioneer, he turned down the best international jobs to return to Africa because his heart was set on his homeland.
Adesina is the new face of investment on the continent and a man on a mission to change Africa, with style, substance, and a master plan.
“In his short period in office, Dr Adesina is already trailblazing. It is clear he has a demonstrated commitment to unlocking the potential of agriculture in Africa. I applaud his continued effort for creating sustainable yet innovative paths out of poverty for many of the continent’s rural inhabitants. I wish him continued success as he carries the very heavy portfolio of investing to transform Africa’s economic, agricultural and industrial sectors.”
— Mohammed Dewji, CEO, MeTL
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