Ibrahim Assane Mayaki, CEO of the New Partnership for Africa's Development Planning and Coordinating Agency and former prime minister of Niger. Mayaki's goal is to turn smallholder farmers into entrepreneurs. Photo by: Paulo Filgueiras / United Nations

Turn smallholders into entrepreneurs.

That’s the aspirational goal of Ibrahim Assane Mayaki, CEO of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development Planning and Coordinating Agency.

But how can we achieve that? By focusing on a few key priorities like agriculture and food security, the former prime minister of Niger told Devex at the sidelines of a workshop in Rome for the launch of PARM, the International Fund for Agriculture Development’s new platform for agriculture risk management. In his view, financial resources are crucial, but even more so to align development efforts with national agricultural development plans.

Mayaki offered an insight on how NEPAD will tackle challenges like illicit financial flows and development coordination, and how his knowledge of taekwondo — which the the former politician introduced in Niger over three decades ago — helps him overcome obstacles.

“Martial arts teach you one essential thing: An easy fight needs your full concentration, so don’t underestimate any easy fight mentally — [but] the more complex the fight is, the more relaxed you need to be.”

Here are some excerpts from our conversation with the NEPAD chief:

What has been the biggest lesson you have learned as CEO?

I have learned one big lesson: Development doesn’t happen in a top-down process — it happens through a combination of top-down and bottom-up. In the last 50 years we have been concentrated on top-down, we didn’t look at the bottom. It’s really the ordinary Africans that will develop the continent, not the governments. The governments have to come and empower them. That’s their essential role.

What about the biggest challenge? Or the biggest failure?

Failures happen every day. You have to fail and wake up again. The biggest challenge is not financial resources, it is not organizational constraints. It’s really the mindset.

When we talk about your programs or the programs of other organizations, we often talk about “innovation” or “innovative approach” … What can be considered really innovative? What innovations do you envision will be really crucial for the future of development in Africa and for the implementation of NEPAD’s programs?

I don’t believe in miracles. I don’t believe there will be one single tool that will be revolutionary … Most of the thinking on the impact of innovating measures is based on predictability systems which most frequently fail. I think innovation is a day-to-day business. In everything you do, you should be innovative.

For people involved in development programs, what does that mean?

[It means] empowering people in terms of knowledge … Development was capital accumulation, [but] development is not capital accumulation, it is knowledge accumulation.

[That requires resources] …  [but] the right point is how we disseminate knowledge in order to empower people. Then that will allow people to innovate day-by-day.

You said the private sector said is key. In many fora, included the last edition of the European Development Days, the discussion is now about on the “how” private sector should be involved in development programs … Do you envision any risk for smallholder farmers? How [can we] mitigate those risks?

There are risks evidently. What we are trying to do through our mandate … is to make sure that every country in which we intervene [there is] a national investment plan in agriculture before looking at how to attract big corporations. If the governments have not planned properly the agricultural sector and they start liaising contractually with corporations, the risks are very high. [For instance] all the debate around what’s called land-grabbing is a real issue. The amount of land that has been … grabbed in Africa … is equivalent to the total surface area of South Africa and Zimbabwe. It is not neglectable. Now, the role of the private sector is absolutely essential and governments should not longer plan in a top-down manner in order to impose a strategy to the private sector.

Do you frankly believe it is possible to achieve development and agriculture development in Africa which such a great level of corruption? What are you doing to address this issue?

We have a working committee on what we call illicit financial flows. That committee has worked with the Economic Commission for Africa, with Transparency International and what we found in figures, which are approximate figures, [is that] that the amount … is around $50 billion a year. Our surprise was that more than 60 percent of that amount hasn’t had [anything] to do with corruption, it has to do with multinationals that are not paying taxes because of the institutional weaknesses of African [governments] … If we want to reduce illicit financial flows, it is true we need to tackle corruption, but the most important part of illicit financial flows is about big private corporations exploiting natural resources and not paying their taxes.

Read more development aid news online, and subscribe to The Development Newswire to receive top international development headlines from the world’s leading donors, news sources and opinion leaders — emailed to you FREE every business day.

About the author

  • Elena L. Pasquini

    Elena Pasquini covers the development work of the European Union as well as various U.N. food and agricultural agencies for Devex News. Based in Rome, she also reports on Italy's aid reforms and attends the European Development Days and other events across Europe. She has interviewed top international development officials, including European Commissioner for Development Andris Piebalgs. Elena has contributed to Italian and international magazines, newspapers and news portals since 1995.