By Bunmi Oloruntoba
Considered the “Nobel Prize of agriculture,” the World Food Prize is awarded each year for a specific and exceptionally significant contribution to the production or distribution of food. This year, the prize was awarded to Akinwumi Adesina, a former Nigerian agriculture minister – and currently the president of the African Development Bank for his contributions to increasing productivity in that country’s agricultural sector.
A list of Adesina’s achievements as minister of agriculture from 2010 to 2015 spans several pages. But for the World Food Prize, the focal point was his introduction of the Electronic Wallet (E-Wallet) platform to Nigeria’s food production and distribution chain.
Through the E-Wallet, Adesina pioneered a new way for the Nigerian government to deliver subsidized farm inputs, such as fertilizer and seeds, to local farmers through private agro-dealers. The farmers, in turn, get to redeem these subsidized inputs from the agro-dealers using e-vouchers, which they can access through their mobile phones.
To implement the platform, Adesina initiated a Growth and Enhancement Support Scheme (GES). He powered the scheme by orchestrating the successful registration of more than five million Nigerian farmers, whose information and mobile phone numbers were added to the GES database. The database, coupled with the E-Wallet, now allows Nigerian farmers to receive directly from the government everything from fertilizer to high-yield rice seeds and palm oil seedlings.
In the past, such subsidized inputs would have bypassed the farmers and fallen into the hands of black marketers who would have sold the inputs on the open market or in neighboring countries. According to the World Food Prize, through the E-wallet Adesina succeeded in breaking the “back of corrupt elements that had controlled the fertilizer distribution system for 40 years.”
The platform also helped solve other previously intractable problems in the way of commercial large scale food production in Nigeria.
For example, the country’s paddy rice farmers, through the E-Wallet, were able to receive from the government award-winning, high yield NERICA rice varieties, which saw their output rise from five to six tons per hectare. Thousands of paddy farmers producing a consistent grade of rice soon created the opportunity for several agro-based companies to switch from rice importation to local rice production, and standardization of the country’s rice output led to large private sector investments in rice milling.
The World Food Prize compares the spread of Adesina’s efforts in scale to the “Green Revolution” work of the Nobel Peace Prize winner Norman Borlaug. In the 1970s and 1980s, Borlaug introduced high-yield dwarf wheat to Latin America and Asia, spawning “Green Revolutions” on two continents.
As other African countries start to adopt E-Wallet platforms to get subsidized inputs – and even financial services – directly to their farmers, the World Food Prize claims Adesina’s E-Wallet is “sparking a Borlaugian ‘Take It to the Farmer’ revolution across Africa.”
Farming creates jobs for young people
In his more recent job as president of Africa’s premier multilateral development finance institution, the African Development Bank (AfDB), Adesina embraces the continent’s “youth bulge” both as an opportunity and a resource in working for economic transformation.
Africa’s labor market is expected to absorb 11 million youths every year for the next decade. Despite rapid growth in formal wage sector jobs, the World Bank estimates that most of the continent’s young people “are likely to work on family farms and in household enterprises, often with very low incomes.”
Adesina wants to drive Africa’s economic transformation by empowering the continent’s youth population and making agriculture the hottest startup sector for young people. To achieve this goal, he wants to change the perception of agriculture in Africa from being a survival activity to a vehicle for wealth creation; from a hobby to a business.
It therefore came as no surprise when Adesina, halfway through his acceptance speech for the World Food Prize, declared to the crowded room in the American Midwestern city of Des Moines that “there will be no rest for me until Africa feeds itself, and for that we need the youth.”
“Even though I don’t have the cheque in my hand right now,” he continued, “I hereby commit my quarter of a million dollars… prize award to set up a fund fully dedicated to providing grants, fellowships and financing for the youth of Africa in agriculture as a business.”
Adesina’s vision for Africa’s youth and agriculture becomes prescient as the world’s geopolitical winds shift the focus of policymakers.
Britain’s Brexit vote to leave the European Union and the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States mark a rightward shift in the geopolitical landscape, with increasing numbers of countries appealing to more nationalistic agendas and responding to calls to stem immigration.
Creating jobs for young people in agriculture can both help Africa’s economic transformation and offer a solution to some of the challenges facing the continent and the world: the high rate of youth unemployment in Africa; human trafficking and the high rate of illegal migration of young Africans into Europe; sustainably kickstarting Africa’s industrialization; and preventing religious radicalization and combating terrorism.
To gain a clearer understanding of these issues, the lectures and speeches Adesina has given around the world are a good place to start:
On Youth Unemployment and Illegal Migration to Europe
Africa’s rapid population growth, specifically the growth of the working-age population, complicates a precarious labor market characterized by poor-quality employment, which in turn creates the urge for the youth to seek better opportunities elsewhere. The International Labor Organization estimates that in the next four years an additional 12.6 million youth in sub-Saharan Africa will enter the labour force.
Data from the International Organization for Migration reveals that more than 154,000 young Africans have crossed the Mediterranean to Europe in 2017 so far. More than 2,900 have died trying to make the crossing. In 2016, more than 352,000 Africans crossed into Europe and more than 4,750 died.
Adesina, in remarks leading up to the 2015 Action Plan for African Agricultural Transformation conference in Dakar, pointed out that “the agricultural sector [in Africa] has four times the power to create jobs and reduce poverty than any other sector.”
“That is why we make the claim that we can diminish the migrant crisis in Europe by supporting agricultural transformation in Africa,” he said.
In remarks at the 2017 G7 Summit in Taormina, Italy, back in May, Adesina expanded on this vision when he said that “the future of Africa’s youth does not lie in migration to Europe” nor should it be “at the bottom of the Mediterranean.” He proposed rather that an agribusiness-driven economy could be one of the economic reasons Africa’s youth choose to remain on the continent.
“We must turn rural areas from zones of economic misery to zones of economic prosperity,” Adesina said. “This requires new agricultural innovations and transforming agriculture into a sector for creating wealth. We must make agriculture a really cool choice for young people.”
“The future millionaires and billionaires of Africa will come initially from agriculture.”
On Africa’s Industrialization
Industrialization has been referred to as the most effective driver of structural poverty reduction. Experts remind us that no developing country has transitioned into a developed country without industrializing.
Adesina, in his opening speech at the Dakar conference, questioned the theory that assumes labour must move from the agricultural sector to the industrial sector. Rather, Adesina suggested an economic theory of industrialization that sees Africa’s industrialization starting from the agricultural sector.
“The reality,” he said, “is that agro-industrialization has greatest potential for Africa to achieve more rapid and inclusive growth – and create jobs… If you want industrialization of Africa, and massive job creation, focus on industrializing the agriculture sector.”
He went on to add, “to rapidly modernize agriculture, we must get the youth engaged in the sector. We must change the perception of the youths of agriculture – they must see agriculture as a business.”
On radicalization and terrorism
The Africa Center for Strategic Studies has warned that one of the “key effect of ISIS’s continued loss of territory and operational capacity in Iraq and Syria will be an increase in the number of ISIS fighters returning to regions in Africa already facing a threat from violent Islamists.”
In his opening remarks at the West African Ministerial Conference in October 2016, Adesina observed that “today, across Africa, unemployed youths are turning into gangs, getting into kidnappings for a living, getting recruited to join terrorist groups. And those are the wrong kind of jobs.”
At his speech at the 2017 G7 conference in Italy, he referred to the deadly combination of extreme rural poverty, high youth unemployment and environmental climate degradation as the “triangle of disaster. Where these factors are found, they provide rich recruitment zones for terrorists.”
In Adesina’s view, agribusiness – more than any other economic sector – has the power to bring wealth to the rural parts of Africa
“I believe that the future millionaires of Africa will come from agriculture, not from the oil and gas industry. Agriculture will become Africa’s new oil.”
Adesina has also announced that his World Food Prize money will be used to establish a World Food Prize Global Youth Institute for Africa, an organization he said will support a new generation of agricultural scientists and innovators across Africa. This organization will nurture and produce graduates known as Borlaug-Adesina Fellows, who will become the next generation of hunger fighters.