The President of the African Development Bank believes passionately that poverty has no place in Africa. Restless about creating opportunities for the continent and promoting food security through agricultural innovation, this is a man on a mission.
Immaculate in his trademark bow tie and bespoke suit, Dr Akinwumi Adesina sits down at a shady outdoor table as a welcome breeze stirs the hot Johannesburg afternoon, and wind-chimes tinkle in the air. This, after an hour under the harsh studio lights for the cover shoot for this article, where he charmed the FORBES AFRICA team with his ready smile and ease in front of the camera.
In four years at the helm of the African Development Bank (AfDB), he has seen many achievements that would leave most people agape at their scope – 16 million people connected to electricity, 70 million received access to agricultural technologies for food security, nine million gained access to finance, 55 million now have access to improved transport, and 31 million have been given access to improved water and sanitation.
And yet, it is not enough.
“We have to go bigger than that,” he says, “I believe Africa needs to move forward, but faster than it has.”
A greater rate of development is made possible by the biggest capital increase in the bank’s 55-year history. At the end of October 2019, AfDB’s 80 shareholder countries approved a $115 billion capital increase, an increase of 125%, from $93 billion to $208 billion.
This capital increase was two years in the making. Two years of hard work and intensive discussions. “And I just feel that there’s wind behind our sails. I feel relieved, I feel happy. Happy not only for myself, but happy for Africa and happy for the bank,” he says.
“We are going to deploy a lot of these resources to accelerate what we have been doing. You know we have a High Five strategy for the continent, which is to light up and power Africa, to feed Africa, to industrialize Africa, to integrate Africa, and to improve the quality of life of the people of Africa.
“So I see a very different Africa in the next couple of years coming,” he continues. “I think you will see huge, huge impact for the bank and of course finally, we’ll be able to help attract a lot more investments to the continent because the private sector is the engine of growth. I see the bank being able to take greater risks on behalf of the private sector in Africa. I am very confident in the future of Africa. Extremely confident.
“Africa’s opportunities for investment are literally limitless. All we have to do is to make sure that we continue to improve the business and investment environment.” In November, less than a week after this interview, African and international investors put their money behind Adesina’s dream for a transformed, economically-vibrant Africa.
On the conclusion of the second Africa Investment Forum (AIF), held in the Gauteng province of South Africa, 56 boardroom deals valued at $67.6 billion resulted in secured investor interest of $40.1 billion in 52 deals. That’s a 44% increase in deals tabled in comparison to 2018’s 61 tabled transactions valued at $46.9 billion and 49 deals worth $38.7 billion in secured investment interest. All of this in less than 72 hours.
“Those nations that have wealth are the ones that export value-added products. The ones that are poor are the ones that export raw materials and I think Africa is done exporting rae materials. Africa cannot be used to poverty; it needs wealth.
Smiling broadly, the President of AfDB commented at the session, Unveiling the Boardroom Deals: “Transactions, transactions, transactions. Deals, deals, deals!”
Africa’s sun has been rising steadily. Today, six of the 10 fastest-growing economies in the world are in Africa. Rwanda is growing at 7.7%, Ethiopia at 7.4%, Ghana at 7.2%, and Mauritania and Cote d’Ivoire at almost 7%.
“So the economies of Africa are doing very well and what’s even more amazing is that 37 countries are growing at three to five percent or above. Today, as we speak, 20 African countries are growing at above five percent globally. And that is amazing. You cannot ignore Africa,” Adesina elaborates.
While foreign direct investment (FDI) for the rest of the world grew at -13%, and the FDI for developed countries grew at -23%, FDI in Africa grew by roughly 11%, from $41 billion to $46 billion in 2018.
Says Adesina: “So that tells you how fast Africa is growing. And more exciting for me is the African Continental Free Trade Area agreement which now opens up Africa with a market of $3.3 trillion.
“Take, for example, the moment we start supporting people to invest across borders and you make it easier for people to travel, guess what? Investment will begin to expand. If I want to take, for example, between 2013 and last year, and even this year, the intra-Africa investment, that is African investors investing in other African countries, rose to $108 billion total. And you look at that and ask yourself what are the countries where most of those investments are coming from; almost 40% of that is from South Africa into other countries. The other countries are Egypt, Nigeria, Morocco and Kenya.”
Adesina advises to look beyond trading in the same things through the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA): “So as opposed to sending raw materials that dominate Africa’s exports to Europe or to America, or to China, if we start trading among ourselves, we should not be trading in raw materials, we should be trading in high value-added products.
“And so, we at the African Development Bank will support the development and the emergence of original, globally competitive value chains, whether it is agriculture, whether it is the pharmaceutical industry, whether it is in other areas of ICT where Africa can be competitive and so at the end of the day, it is about added value to everything that Africa has, because as I always say, the secret of the wealth of nations is very clear.
“Those nations that have wealth are the ones that export value-added products. The ones that are poor are the ones that export raw materials and I think Africa is done exporting raw materials. Africa cannot be used to poverty; it needs wealth,” Adesina says.
In order to take advantage of the collective market of $3.3 trillion the AfCFTA is opening up, it is important to invest in basic enabling conditions.
“First and foremost, you have to co-ordinate, so the African Development Bank has provided almost $5 million to the African Union Commission to establish the Secretariat – the African Continental Free Trade Secretariat in Ghana and we’re delighted that it’s in Ghana. Second, is that we invested heavily in infrastructure to enable that, so whether it is transnational highways, whether it is digital infrastructure, financial inclusion, we’re investing in integrating our capital markets all across Africa so you can actually mobilize domestic savings in that.”
Part of the requirements is to ensure that people can move more easily across borders without it taking too much time.
“We are very excited at how many countries have made it easier for Africans to invest in other African countries. For example, today, as an African, you can go into African countries; [for] 25% of them, you won’t even need a visa; 21% of them you can get visas on arrival. And the rest of them, you will need a visa. So, we still have quite a big way to go, but a lot of progress is being made,” Adesina says.
Also part of enabling conditions is infrastructure.
“Nations progress to the extent of their investment in infrastructure. Whether it is roads, ports, rail, airports or digital infrastructure. It’s like trying to walk as a person and not having a backbone. That’s what infrastructure really is and that’s why the African Development Bank is investing heavily on infrastructure – for countries, but also for regional infrastructure.”
There are 16 landlocked countries in Africa that need interconnectors to gain access to a port. In the southern African region, the AfDB has invested heavily in the Nacala Port Corridor, which opens up opportunities for Zambia, Malawi, Mozambique and even South Africa to access Mozambique’s Nacala Port.
Another investment has been over $360 million to double the capacity of the Walvis Bay Port in Namibia so that it can serve other countries.
Adesina continues: “We are investing right now in energy transport infrastructure, for example, I just came in from Zambia this morning, talking to President Edgar Lungu. And we’re investing in the interconnected power that will link Zambia to Zimbabwe to Botswana and Namibia.
“In West Africa, we just completed in January this year, a landmark historic investment linking Senegal and Gambia through the Senegambia Bridge. They never had a bridge connecting them. They were just neighbors.”
Akinwumi Adesina was adjudged ‘African of the Year’ at the 2019 All Africa Business Leaders Awards held in association with CNBC Africa
The AfDB is also working on a rail project that will link Tanzania to Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Burundi.
Looking at the infrastructure financing gap, Adesina describes it as “a lot”.
“Africa today has an infrastructure financing gap of anything between $68 billion to $108 billion a year. But I’m not scared of that. It’s whether you look at it as a cup half empty or half full; $68 billion to $108 billion a year means there is a business opportunity of $68 billion to $108 billion. And that’s why the Africa Investment Forum is critical for that.”
While governments have an important role to play in funding the infrastructure gap, the private sector’s contribution is crucial through Public Private Partnerships.
Adesina also believes that Africa should mobilize more domestic savings to invest in infrastructure. “If you look at Africa today, the institutional investors like the pension funds, the sovereign wealth funds, and insurance pool of funds we have is about $1.8 trillion. But all of that is being invested outside Africa in money-market instruments that are earning a negative real rate of return today.
“So you tell me, what sense does it make if I have a sovereign wealth fund that has become the fund of another sovereign, except for money? You invest in money market instruments when you have no power, you have no water, you have no roads, you have no rail. That’s not a smart investment. Or a pension fund of an African country invested in money market instruments outside. Let’s even assume that you make money from that. What are you going to do? You’re going to turn around and offer annuity payments that will give people regular income for the rest of their retirement life, right?
“Well, I’m sorry, it means they will be returning to their communities, to their cities without good water, without good health services, without good transport, without good energy. No. That will be miserable retirement. And so what I want to see is Africa’s pension funds, sovereign wealth funds and other institutional investors investing their money to help to close that $68 billion to $108 billion investment gap.”
He remembers his mother telling him as a child, that if you go down to a market, and you do not promote your own product, who will stop at your stall to buy your wares?
“So charity must begin at home. I want Africa’s institutional investors investing in Africa, in roads, in rail, and we as a bank are there to support them to reduce the risk of their investments in Africa. I want an Africa that is able to attract capital, to close this gap. I’m not afraid of the difference in the financing gap. I think we can close it.”
Crucial in improving the lives of millions of Africans is the acceleration of Africa’s agricultural transformation.
Agriculture has been an important part of Adesina’s life.
He grew up as the son of a farm laborer. His family was “desperately poor”.
“And it was through the generosity of somebody who took my dad out of the farm, that my father was able to get an education at an older age. So, without that, you won’t be talking to me today. I would probably be lost in the village selling something by the side of the road. And so when it then came down to what I was going to do, I was very good at school, and my father told me that education is the leveler; if we make the children of poor people stand at the same pedestal as those of rich people.”
His father had a choice of three study paths mapped for the young Adesina: medicine, dentistry or veterinary medicine. Three times his father filled in the application forms, three times the answer came back – Adesina’s grades fell just short of acceptance in medical school. But agriculture was recommended.
“I wore my bow ties all the time, and some people never even thought I was a minister of agriculture.
“And the third time, my father said, ‘God must really want you to do agriculture’. And so, that was how I got into agriculture,” he relates.
When he completed a PhD in Agricultural Economics at Purdue University in the United States (US), he wrote to his father, signing the letter as “Doctor”.
“And so from that time, he always called me ‘doctor’. Now, he has gone, bless his soul, he’s passed away. But when our first son was graduating in the United States from medical school, my dad was 92, so I took him to the United States to witness the event. He was there. And so, we were taking photographs and my father said ‘doctor!’, so I turned, I said, ‘yes, dad’. He said, ‘no, I don’t mean you, I mean the REAL doctor’. So I told my father, ‘even the real doctors will tell you, take your medication three times a day, only after food’. Which means agriculture is more important than medicine,” says Adesina, with laughter that is warm and infectious. “So we used to have fun with it!”
Being awarded the Rockefeller Foundation Social Science Post-Doctoral Fellowship in 1988, launched his international career in agricultural development.
Dr Raj Shah, the President of the Rockefeller Foundation, writes in the foreword to Adesina’s authorized biography, Against All Odds: “I have learned a tremendous amount from Akin over the years, but what I think of most is his ability to speak to rural farmers, heads of state, philanthropists and investors with the same genuine, thoughtful and respectful consideration. His ability to be open, honest, and clear with everyone he meets is key to his impact and success as a leader.”
Between 2011 and 2015, Adesina was Nigeria’s Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development.
During this time, he fought corruption and introduced revolutionary changes in the agriculture sector. This led to increased agricultural production, a drop in food imports and declining rates of poverty.
Asked about those years, he replies: “Well, you know, I come from a perspective as a minister, that Nigeria’s biggest comparative advantage was not oil and gas, because oil and gas was not something that was going to create a lot of jobs. And I knew that agriculture was what we had huge comparative advantage in. So what I decided to do was to do a lot of work to first change the perception of the sector.
“I wore my bow ties all the time, and some people never even thought I was a minister of agriculture, you know, ‘what kind of minister of agriculture these days is wearing bow ties’, and I said ‘because you think agriculture is for poor people’. You know, guess what? The biggest and richest people in the world in Europe and the United States are farmers. They’re in agriculture.
“So I did a lot of work to change the perception so that people would recognize that agriculture is cool, it’s sexy, it’s a money-making business.”
By his side during his time as Minister of Agriculture, was Grace Oluyemisi, his wife of 35 years and the “rock of the family”.
“I can tell you, I wouldn’t be where I am today without Grace. We are not only best friends, but we are also intellectual partners. When I was minister in Nigeria, I would debate policies with Grace at home,” Adesina says. She had qualified to do a PhD at the same time he did, but opted to dedicate her time to raising a family. The couple have two sons, both of who work in the US.
The elder is the medical doctor Rotimi, whose wife Alexandra will soon qualify as a medical doctor, and the younger is Segun, who is married to Emily and is the father of Adesina’s first granddaughter, Noemi, born in January 2019.
While raising the family, Grace also studied Economics at the University of London, and was awarded first a Bachelor’s in Economics – with the best result in England and Wales – and then a Master’s degree in Financial Management.
“So we have a lot of debates and I used to tell my colleagues, ministers in Nigeria at the time, that by the time I brought any policy document to the Federal Executive Council, it has passed ‘the Grace test’. If it can pass the Grace test, it can pass anybody’s test. That’s how rigorous she is. Even now at the bank, it’s the same. She debates with me a lot,” Adesina says.
As agriculture minister, he introduced farmers to modern, digital technology on mobile phones. This “helped to end 40 years of corruption in the seed and fertilizer sector in Nigeria”.
“We gave farmers subsidies via their mobile phones, they’d go to the private sector, and buy the inputs of the traders in their villages, there was no middle man; cut them all off. And we reached 15 million farmers in about four years, which was just incredible.”
That was the Electronic Wallet System, or e-wallet system, which is now being used in many African countries, and as far as Afghanistan.
“I’m very proud of that work,” he says.
“But the other thing that we did was to get the private sector to come into the agriculture sector. Over a four-year period, we succeeded in attracting about $5.6 billion of private sector investments into agriculture, from investing in rice to investing in cotton production or sugar production, or fertilizer manufacturing. I am most proud of that because we managed to really change everything in the agriculture sector, made it a real dynamic sector. And so I was pretty happy and felt it was a great honor to be asked to serve and I think I worked all the time, I didn’t have any life.”
This statement could of course not be left floating in the air.
I had to ask him how he managed to keep up with the blistering pace he sets himself.
“I think it’s my moral compass. This is not a job for me. This is a mission. I believe passionately that poverty has no basis in Africa and I believe we must do everything we can to create opportunities very quickly and I am very restless when it comes to creating opportunities for the continent. So that keeps me going.”
He reminisces about how his father sent him to a village school to complete his high school studies. The young Adesina was not impressed. But his father sat him down and explained, saying: “I sent you to a village school because I wanted you to see even more of the reality of poverty, because you never know what God might make you in life. If God ever makes you anybody important in life, you will know exactly what to do. So it is that passion, that drive, that commitment, that motivates me.
“I am relentless in looking for solutions and I don’t think life is about me, it’s about God provided you an opportunity to be an instrument to change the lives of hundreds of millions of people. And nothing is more important than that,” he explains.
This mission also drives him to not only give of his time, but his own money to assist young people to build their careers. Together with his wife, Grace, he established the World Hunger Fighters Foundation.
He explains: “One of our goals is to develop a new generation of young people that will be global leaders in fighting global hunger and malnutrition, but by doing that through agriculture as a business because I really believe in that. You know I have never seen anybody who wants to be poor. People are poor because they lack opportunities.”
The Foundation is funded by prizes awarded to Adesina, starting with a total cash amount of $1.1 million in the kitty.
“In 2017, I was very honored and greatly humbled to have been awarded the World Food Prize, known as the ‘Nobel Prize for Food and Agriculture’. And when I won that award, I was given the prize in Des Moines, Iowa, in the United States. And it comes with a cash prize of $250,000. And as I took to the stage to be given the award, I told them I was not going to take the money for myself. I told them I was going to devote the entire $250,000 to supporting young people in food and agriculture, because I really believe we need more dynamic, entrepreneurial young people in agriculture. So I devoted the whole thing to them.”
This year, in Seoul, South Korea, Adesina was awarded the global Sunhak Peace Prize for his achievements in promoting food security in Africa through agricultural innovation. It came with a cash prize of $500,000, which also went straight into the Foundation.
The Foundation offers a one-year fellowship program. Within the first two weeks of advertising the fellowship, 1,300 applications were received. Ten Borlaug Adesina Fellows were chosen. This was named after Adesina’s mentor, the late 1970 Nobel Peace Prize winner, Dr Norman Borlaug, who was awarded the prize for his contributions to the ‘green revolution’ and its impact on food production.
In October, the Adesinas took the 10 Borlaug Adesina Fellows to the World Food Prize in Iowa – a global event. “They had never seen anything like that in their life and it was a great exposure for them,” he says. Within 24 hours, they were snapped up by global companies and international agriculture research centers. “It’s going to provide them a world of opportunities that they never dreamed about.
“So really it’s no longer about me. It’s not about you, what you have. If I have a billion dollars today, I would do exactly the same thing. Because I really believe that the future is not just for the youth, the present is for them. We have got to start investing in them. I am very passionate about investing in young people and that’s why, of late, I’ve been speaking a lot about the creation of new banks just for young people in Africa.
“Because today you have about 640 million young people on the continent, but there are no financial institutions dedicated for them. They have great ideas, but there’s no money. They walk into current banks and when they see them, they see problems. They don’t see hope, they don’t see opportunities. They’re crushed. And that’s the whole asset of a continent. So that’s why I have called for the creation of what is called the Youth Entrepreneurship Investment Banks.”
These banks will be banks for young people, run by young people. Run professionally, the banks will provide grants for the youth to develop their businesses.
“They will invest in the eco-system to which the businesses of young people are connected so that they can succeed,” Adesina explains. “They will be able to provide debt financing for bankable businesses of young people at an affordable rate, and then as their businesses grow over time, this Youth Entrepreneurship Investment Bank will take equity in the businesses of the young people as they grow.
“So, it is a step to helping them to grow, and you’re helping them throughout their business cycle. I really think that when you take a look at the world today, we talk about GDP (Gross Domestic Product). I can have a high GDP as a country, just from oil, just from gas, it does not mean that my young people are contributing to that GDP.
“And so what I want to see in Africa is what I call sometimes Y-GDP, which is the contribution of young people to the GDP of economies. And that can only come through entrepreneurship and innovation,” he continues.
“To be able to have innovation and entrepreneurship, we have to believe in the youth, we have to put our capital at risk for the youth, because if we don’t, all of us are going to be at risk.”
Adesina has been talking to a number of countries about these banks. “I believe that the African Development Bank will be there to help provide some financing to get these banks off the ground. If you look in the past, when micro-enterprises could not get access to financing from the traditional banks, Muhammad Yunus, who won the Nobel prize, developed the micro-finance institutions.”
The Nobel Peace Prize 2006 was awarded jointly to Yunus and Grameen Bank “for their efforts to create economic and social development from below”.
Adesina does not believe in youth empowerment. But he does believe in the youth. “In my experience, the people who say they’re empowering the youth are the ones who are empowering themselves. The youth don’t need hand-outs, they need investment. Africa’s challenges require Africa’s solutions. And Africa’s biggest assets being our young people, they can’t be roaming the streets. They can’t be dying over the Mediterranean, which I’m very ashamed when I see that. Or they cannot be loitering in the Sahara Desert just trying to make a living,” he explains.
“As nations, we should invest in the young people because as the world’s population gets older, Africa will have the youngest population in the world. The number of young people in Africa in the labor market by 2050 will be close to a billion people. Now, what are they going to do if they don’t have jobs and what are they going to do if they have not created jobs? So we can’t wait for that, that’s why I want us to create the Youth Entrepreneurship Investment Banks that will provide them the capital, the finance, the confidence they need to turn their ideas into great businesses.”
There has to be a focus on agriculture as the size of the African food and agriculture sector is going to rise to over $1 trillion by 2030.
“That means that the future millionaires and billionaires of Africa will not be coming from the oil and gas sector, they’ll be coming from the agriculture sector. But I want African countries to be looking at agriculture as a business, not as a way of life. Nobody smokes gas. Nobody drinks oil, but everybody eats food. So food is critical and that is what Africa has a comparative advantage in.
“Think about it; 65% of all the arable land left to feed almost nine billion people in the world by 2050 is not in China, it’s not in Europe, it’s not in Latin America. It’s in Africa. So what Africa does with agriculture is going to determine the future of food in the world. And so we at the African Development Bank are investing right now, over a ten-year period, $25 billion in the agricultural sector to help them to make it a thriving business.”