Q&A: IFAD's outgoing president on the continuous need of rural transformation

Kanayo Nwanze, outgoing president at IFAD. Photo by: Giulio Napolitano / FAO

Agriculture plays a strategic role in economic development and employs as many as 70 percent of Africans. Yet in many countries, the benefits are still elusive. Smallholder farmers in particular face constraints, including poor infrastructures, lack of access to finances and markets, and few opportunities to improve their skills base.

Drawing out the economic potential of the sector is the mandate for the United Nations’  International Fund for Agricultural Development. Under the leadership of outgoing President Kanayo Nwanze, the agency has focused particularly on reaching the most vulnerable groups in rural areas: smallholder farmers, and particularly women. Doing so is key to reaching Agenda 2030, Nwanza told Devex in an exit interview.

Q&A: IFAD's new president on improving life in rural and agricultural areas

People-centered development, women's empowerment, decentralization and empowering the private sector will be key priorities when Gilbert Fossoun Houngbo takes the helm of the International Fund for Agricultural Development in April. Devex speaks with the incoming leader about his philosophy and goals.

“Rural transformation, not just rural development, remains a high development concern and is key to achieving the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals,” he said. As his eight-year tenure draws to a close, Nwanze remains a strong advocate for the rights of rural populations.

Devex spoke to Nwanze on how rural development has changed during his term of office and his expectations for the coming years. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

How has rural development changed during your tenure as president of IFAD?

Rural development remains a major challenge. What perhaps has changed is the international community’s acceptance of the importance of rural transformation to achieve zero hunger and zero poverty. There is a heightened awareness, partly due to the efforts of IFAD and perhaps due to the Rural Development Report, which we released in September last year. That report clearly illustrates the importance of rural transformation, and that we will not achieve Agenda 2030 — which says leave no one behind — until rural areas become transformed into economically and socially viable societies. There is some change in awareness, but the challenges remain the same: very poor infrastructure, inconsistent policies, lack of access to many things like inputs, finance, energy, water and health.

Rural development remains a major challenge. What perhaps has changed is the international community’s acceptance of the importance of rural transformation to achieve zero hunger and zero poverty.

Some places in the world have made better rural transformations than others over the last 15 to 20 years. China is a good example of how massive government investment into rural infrastructure, rural development, access to financial services and job creation can stem the migration from urban to rural areas. We can look at Vietnam, Cambodia. In Latin America, you have countries like Brazil. In Africa, you have places like Rwanda, Ethiopia, Kenya, Côte d’Ivoire, to some extent Senegal. In Africa, you can boil it down to one major factor, which is good political leadership, good governance and the rule of law. In the countries I’ve mentioned you can see that.

Is there any aspect that you think needs more attention than others to stimulate rural transformation?

One area I’d like to highlight, because we have seen this over and over again in all regions of the world, is the investment and empowerment of rural women.

One area I’d like to highlight, because we have seen this over and over again in all regions of the world, is the investment and empowerment of rural women. They make up the majority of the rural populations and they suffer the most — lack of access to financial services, to markets, denial of their rights to land, denial of their voice. What we’ve found in projects we’ve supported in various parts of the world is that when these poor women are financially empowered, they will invest it in their children’s education, health and well-being.

For us it is very crucial that we advocate for policy changes in countries that give women and girls equal opportunities as boys and men. In rural populations, land is captured by men. Women don’t have rights to the land, but women cultivate this land. Men view it as an economically viable asset, so they take over. The empowerment of women is not just an issue of gender equality but additive to the most vulnerable sector of rural populations, which is made up of women who also make up most of the labor force in smallholder agriculture.

A major development focus in Africa is to help the continent feed itself. How can youth be encouraged to take up agriculture in rural populations when they may see greater opportunities in urban areas?

This is a big issue. Youth are always looking for opportunities in urban areas. But what happens is that when they migrate to urban areas, they lose the social position they had in their rural communities and they expose themselves to a highly populated job market. They end up jobless, roaming the streets, becoming highly susceptible to radicalization and extremism. The migration from rural to urban populations is such a catch for younger populations, but it’s just a mirage. The point is not just making agriculture attractive; it is getting people to have a change in mindset.

If you look at Africa in particular, country after country is realizing that the extractive industries — gas, oil, minerals, diamonds, copper and so on — have not been able to sustain their development. Why? Bad governance, corruption. Countries that are richly endowed have squandered their wealth. Now they are returning to agriculture, which during the 1970s and ‘80s made up 20 to 40 percent of countries’ GDPs. Agriculture is the lifeline of most of these countries.

How could countries with so much land, cultivated and uncultivated, not be able to feed themselves? We have to have good leadership that can instill good governance. The governance issue, unfortunately, runs through the whole fabric of our societies. We [need] a change in mindset that understands the greatest source of wealth to Africa is, one, our land resources, and two, our human resources: the young people that can make up to 60 percent of a country’s population. They have to see agriculture, no matter the size or scale, as an economically viable proposition.

“If you look at Africa in particular, country after country is realizing that the extractive industries have not been able to sustain their development … Now they are returning to agriculture”

Why should we be spending billions of dollars each year on imported foods, providing jobs to foreign countries? Isn’t it a shame? Africa knows what to do. We’ve had enough conferences and workshops. We go through the same declarations and make the same commitments. But commitments and potentials don’t feed poor, hungry people.

You have advocated for including smallholder farmers into food systems. What specific measures can countries or the international community take to make this happen?

We have to understand that when you take small producers as a group, they are the largest private sector group in Africa. They are a powerful sector of our food systems.

IFAD helps to organize farmers into associations and, more often, cooperatives. When they are organized with their own governance systems and transparent mechanisms that allows fluid participation and inclusiveness of women and men, they have a voice; they can negotiate prices; they have direct access to markets without going through middle men; they can influence members of government in terms of the investment in rural infrastructure.

They become competitive because they have incentives to produce and access to markets. Smallholders today are not profitable, so we must organize them so they understand that this is a business that they are engaged in. In countries where we have been able to organize farmers into women’s associations, cooperatives, etc., they are thriving. We’ve seen examples of this in places like Rwanda, Ethiopia and Nigeria.  

What would you name as your biggest accomplishment at IFAD?

When I first began at IFAD and traveled to Latin America, that’s when it dawned on me that small producers were not just poor rural people waiting on government handouts or for international charity. I realized that they aspire to have the same things that you and I enjoy in our daily lives.

Their business in smallholder agriculture was not profitable. That’s why I began saying to my colleagues and to members of our board [of directors] that agriculture, regardless of the size and scale, is a business. Smallholder producers are entrepreneurs. People laughed at me and thought that I romanticized this idea until the G20 [meeting in] 2011. The declaration had three paragraphs dedicated to smallholder agriculture and the role of smallholder producers to achieving food security globally. I realized then that people were listening that agriculture is a business.

My proudest moment is that today the private sector is seeking partnership with smallholder producers worldwide, whether it’s Wal-Mart, or Unilever, or Coca-Cola, or Mastercard Foundation. For me, this is something to be proud of, because it acknowledges how central smallholders are to food security and global development. My last words are that if you believe in what you say, then invest in rural people.

Do you have any words for your successor, Gilbert Fossoun Houngbo?

It’s very simple. If you ever have any doubts about what IFAD is doing, go out to the fields, go to the rural communities. Sit with them, and talk with them — see what they are doing. You’ll be proud of IFAD, because IFAD is the best partner they can have in transforming their lives. What we do really makes a difference in reaching development goals.

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About the author

  • Christin roby

    Christin Roby

    Christin Roby is the West Africa Correspondent for Devex. Based in Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire, she covers global development trends, health, technology, and policy. Before relocating to West Africa, Christin spent several years working in local newsrooms and earned her Master of Science in videography and global affairs reporting from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. Her informed insight into the region stems from her diverse coverage of more than a dozen African nations.