IFAD chief on why Africa's leaders are failing agriculture — and what to do about it

Kanayo Nwanze, president of the International Fund for Agricultural Development. Photo by: Benedikt von Loebell / World Economic Forum / CC BY-NC-SA

Kanayo Nwanze, president of the Rome-based International Fund for Agricultural Development, is a tireless advocate for putting Africa’s smallholder farmers at the center of the global agriculture agenda.

During his tenure at IFAD, Nwanze has opened more country offices in Africa, in an effort to move the organization closer to the people it serves, and has ensured IFAD has taken an active role in global policy dialogues. For this work — as well as reorienting IFAD’s mission to focus more on making small-scale farming as a viable business — he was awarded the inaugural Africa Food Prize in early September at the African Green Revolution Forum in Nairobi, Kenya.

Africa’s agriculture has made great strides, he told Devex, but he’s looking to all stakeholders — government, private sector, international organizations and development institutions — for stronger leadership.

Devex caught up with Nwanze following his award to talk about everything from the most promising initiatives to support women in agriculture to what innovations he wants to see take off in the next five years.

You rattled off many numbers while addressing press at African Green Revolution Forum — only 6 percent of cultivated land in Africa is irrigated, over $35 billion is spent every year on food imports, total food losses in sub-Saharan Africa are estimated to be worth $4 billion per year. Do those numbers motivate or discourage you?

Over the last decade, Africa’s agriculture has made great strides, though progress has been uneven, and many challenges remain. Against this background, I think we are justified in being optimistic that we can make further progress in the years to come.

The key is building greater momentum behind our efforts to raise agricultural productivity sustainably, improve rural infrastructure, and strengthen policy and institutional support for agriculture. If all partners persist in these efforts — government, the private sector, international organizations and development institutions — there is every reason to believe that Africa, with its huge land and human resources, can meet growing domestic food demand and one day even  become a global food supplier again, exporting key staples such as rice. The key of course will be leadership. And this is where my frustration and disappointment come from. I believe our leadership in Africa has failed, failed woefully in this regard. Our partners cannot do it for us.

You dedicated your African Food Prize award to “the millions of African women who silently toil to feed their families.” What, in your opinion, are the most promising initiatives to support women in agriculture on the continent? Is there a moment that stands out as a sign of progress in this realm?

Economic empowerment is hugely important for rural women and it is IFAD’s top priority in our work to promote gender equality. Economic empowerment means enabling women to earn a fair income from their labor and their produce, and to decide how that income will be spent. It also means having access to financial services such as microcredit and insurance, and being able to acquire assets and to start businesses.

Secure access to land also makes a key contribution to improving the livelihoods of rural women. Encouragingly, some countries have introduced progressive legislation and policies over the last decade or so that strengthen women’s rights to own and inherit land — at least in theory. An IFAD-funded project in Ethiopia is supporting the issuing of land certificates, which have been given to all women heads of households in the target area. In married households, family land is being registered and certificates are being issued with husband and wife as co-owners. The project is directly benefiting 450,000 households.

We need to encourage such measures in other countries. We must also support interventions — such as information campaigns, training, and enabling women to organize collectively — that help them to take full advantage of the new rights given to them on paper.

You’ve advocated strongly for smallholder farmers and small business. What, in your opinion, will the role of rural agro-dealer play in the future of Africa’s agriculture?

Many organizations, including IFAD, are working to improve delivery of new seeds and other inputs such as fertilizers and extension services to smallholder farmers in Africa. There is now a clear consensus about the vital role that networks of certified rural small and medium enterprises can play in delivering inputs and knowledge, especially to smallholder farmers who are beyond the reach of more formal providers. These enterprises are therefore key actors in our efforts to transform African agriculture. But entrepreneurs do not appear from thin air. They appear when the conditions are right for energetic and imaginative people to seize opportunities. And these opportunities depend on the actions of governments, donors, and other institutions.

Rural people need a commitment by government to establish and enforce policies that encourage higher food production by smallholders. This includes policies that offer incentives for investment in agriculture and reduce the risks for farmers and private sector partners alike. It requires policies that encourage inclusive business models, and that increase the ability of poor farmers to access finance and technology and that protect their rights to water and land.

What innovation would you like to see take off in agriculture in the next five years?

Agricultural science has built a well-deserved reputation over the last several decades for delivering specific technical innovations, such as improved seeds and practices, which offer smallholder farmers clear benefits. Certainly, we need to maintain the flow of such technologies.

But my hope is that, rather than just deliver more innovations to farmers, we will make real headway over the next five years in helping rural people benefit from innovations and even become innovators themselves. Many effective approaches have been pioneered in recent years to accomplish this. I believe such approaches are vital for enabling smallholders not just to make incremental gains but to transform agriculture, so that it can be competitive in markets, environmentally sustainable, and resilient in the face of climate change. Agriculture is the main source of livelihoods in rural areas. Transform smallholder agriculture and you can foster an inclusive rural transformation, both social and economic, that will go a long way towards eliminating poverty and hunger.

You’ve ensured the growth of IFAD’s country offices, of which there are now 20 in Africa where there were six a decade ago. What has this proximity to the people IFAD serves meant for the way it operates? What have you learned from it?

Opening more country offices in Africa moved IFAD closer to the people it serves, and this motivated and enabled our staff to work more effectively with rural communities and the local organizations that serve them. In the process, we have learned a lot about adapting and targeting our investments to create more benefits for smallholders and their families.

Recent studies carried out by our independent office of evaluation show that the programs and projects supported by IFAD have greater impact where we have country offices. Our staff also have greater influence on policy issues related to rural development and partnership-building is also more effective with our expanded presence on the ground.

Your research background has shaped your leadership at IFAD. And Joachim von Braun, director of the Center for Development Research, said during AGRF that “scientists can be successful change agents.” What do you say to that — and to today’s young African scientists? Any advice for them?

My advice for young African scientists is to cultivate and put into practice the ideas that my generation inherited from Norman Borlaug and other Green Revolution architects.

One is our deeply felt conviction that problem-solving science for development can ultimately defeat hunger and poverty. Another is our sense of urgency about solving problems by working hard alongside partners in the field. I would add one further recommendation from experience: Think beyond your own discipline, and embrace a holistic view that takes into account not only biophysical factors but the economic, social, and political dimensions as well. This kind of thinking is essential for confronting the complex challenges that agriculture faces today. And we have to remember that the people we are trying to help have valuable knowledge themselves, and we must work in partnership with them.

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About the author

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    Kelli Rogers

    Kelli Rogers is an Associate Editor for Devex. Based on the U.S. West Coast, she works with Devex's team of correspondents and editors around the world, with a particular focus on gender. She previously worked as Devex’s Southeast Asia correspondent based in Bangkok, covering disaster and crisis response, resilience, women’s rights, and climate change throughout the region. Prior to that, she reported on social and environmental issues from Nairobi, Kenya. Kelli holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri, and has since reported from more than 20 countries.