Akin Adesina: Making agriculture work for farmers

Minister Akin Adesina. Photo by IITA.
Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development Akin Adesina. Photo by IITA.

Sir, you have a tall order for yourself and for the Ministry in particular. Could you tell us your program priorities?
The tall order is not one that I actually set. The tall order was set by the people of Nigeria in terms of expectations from the political class. When President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan was endorsed by the people in a huge way, he told Nigerians, “I will never, never let Nigerians down” That is the order.

So my task as Minister of Agriculture is derived from the President’s commitment to Nigerians. I have to make sure that Nigeria’s agriculture delivers in such a way that we can feed Nigerians; that we put a lot of the youth to work; that we can reduce our import dependency; that we can get a new generation of young farmers back into agriculture; that we can diversify the economy from relying just on petroleum; that we can get our crops—cocoa, oil palm, and cotton—competitive and back into the market. My task is to make sure that Nigeria can feed itself with pride and to make sure that Nigeria does not become a dumping ground for food; we should be a net exporter of food.

In practical terms, how will you achieve this?
If you want to rebuild a house, you first figure out what’s wrong with the house before you start putting your structures in place. Nigeria used to be the largest player in palm oil. We were producing 60% of the global production; today, zero. We used to account for 30% of cotton production, just like groundnut; today, we are almost near zero… And so my task is, first and foremost, to bring a new sense of order to the disorder in the agricultural sector.

Today, we must rapidly raise productivity; make improved seeds, hybrids, and fertilizers available to farmers; make sure they have access to finance; and improve their access, so they can actually begin to produce a lot of food for the domestic markets.

The second thing that we have done is to launch the Cassava Green Revolution. As you know, Nigeria produces 45 million t of cassava; we are the largest producer in the world, but we account for 0% in terms of global value addition. For our Cassava Green Revolution, we want our farmers to make money, and they’ll be getting better markets when their cassava is actually processed, for example, as starch, ethanol, glucose, chips for livestock feed and, of course, gari.

We have also launched a Green Revolution for sorghum and a Green Revolution for sweetpotato, because sweetpotato, especially the orange-fleshed kind, allows us to add beta-carotene for kids. In terms of cash crops, we are looking at cocoa and oil palm.

What has been the response of the private sector? How do you intend to bring them into your strategy?
The private sector is the engine of growth. Every time you unlock the power of the private sector, you will create a lot of jobs and have significant amounts of growth. Agriculture is a business, so we need the private sector in the seed set-up. For example, in this country we have about 11 seed companies that are functional. Those seed companies need access to financing to be able to expand their production from the current level of about 5000 t to a million t. That means that they must have access to land and financing—for processing and seed-processing equipment—long-term investment, not just working capital. And so, the Ministry is putting together a venture capital fund that will enable our seed companies to get access to the financing that they need.

What role could partners such as IITA and NGOs play in your strategy?
First and foremost, I cut my teeth in research, actually working for the CGIAR. I also worked in IITA in the 1990s. I am enormously proud of IITA, of what it IITA does, and its impact on Nigeria and all of Africa. Why are the international agricultural research centers (IARCs) such an important system? There’s a history to that. When the Green Revolution started in Asia, it happened because the International Wheat and Maize Improvement Center (CIMMYT) in Mexico and the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines worked on new varieties of wheat and rice that rapidly increased farmers’ yields by three or four times.

Launching a Green Revolution in cassava in Nigeria. Photo by IITA.
Launching a Green Revolution in cassava in Nigeria. Photo by IITA.

That particular situation lifted a billion people out of poverty in Asia. The basis of that was the IARCs. In Africa, the prime center of the system is IITA. IITA has done well. There was a time when we had a problem with the cassava mealybug that was destroying cassava all over Africa. IITA helped to develop a biocontrol program that dealt with it and with a billion dollars worth of benefits. In fact, it is probably the best research ever in the world in terms of biocontrol for any given thing when it comes to rate of return.

IITA was behind the Maize Revolution in the northern Guinea savanna of Nigeria in the 1980s. IITA released new varieties of maize that turned the entire northern Guinea savanna from relying on sorghum to producing maize as a cash crop.

Let’s look at IITA and soybean. Nigeria never used to grow soybean; we were importing it. The Nigerian Government supported IITA then; some people said we shouldn’t. In fact, some foreign Governments said, “If you support IITA, we would not fund IITA any longer.” The Nigerians said, “No, we will support IITA” and they did. IITA then released the TGx varieties in the northern Guinea savanna. Today, Nigeria is the largest producer of soybean in Africa. IITA also continues to work on developing better, high-yielding varieties of maize and soybean. In addition, IITA is working on aflasafeTM which is dealing with the huge problem of aflatoxin contamination in the north.

This shows that one cannot get far without research. It’s not just IITA; we have other IARCs here, such as AfricaRice, CIMMYT, International Center for Research in the Semi-arid Tropics (ICRISAT), and the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), all working in Nigeria and all in their own way having significant impact. I believe that for us to achieve the Green Revolution, IITA and other organizations have to put more effort in pushing out appropriate technologies to farmers. There has to be better coordination and synergy between the IARCs and our national institutes. When India achieved its Green Revolution, most of the people who did the work were from the Indian Agricultural Research Council. For Nigeria, we want our national agricultural research centers strengthened so as to be level partners with IITA.

At the end of the day, we have to make sure that there is R4D, research for development, not research for research. IITA and other centers are pioneering this area, making sure that agricultural research is relevant to the needs of the end user.

If you look at investment in agricultural research, it has the highest rate of return of anything—higher than that from health and education. If you can just increase the productivity of agriculture in Nigeria by 10%, you can lift 70 million people out of poverty. Obviously, that requires investment in research. My own desire is that the donors that are supporting IITA continue to support IITA and other IARCs still more because we need them for our Green Revolution.

But in addition, our Government also needs to look at the amount of money we are spending on agriculture compared to what was agreed at the NEPAD—countries were to put 10% of their budget into agriculture. If we are at 3% and less, we need to change that and be able to come back to 10%. Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Malawi, Kenya, and Ethiopia are all at 10% and more, and we have more mouths to feed than they have. So, we can’t just simply say we are relying on external institutions; we must have sufficient resources to drive the agriculture change process. Also, domestically, research pays off enormously.

As a former member of staff in IITA, what are the areas you think need to be strengthened?
IITA must ensure that its available technologies such as cassava varieties that give 40—50 t/ha reach farmers. Secondly, IITA needs to get back into what it used to do before: training national scientists, providing them with opportunities to come in and spend sabbaticals at IITA. At the end of the day, it is the national institutions that will have to deliver the change, but you need strong national partners to work with.

The other thing that I think is crucial is for IITA is to work more on markets. It needs to make sure that the value-chains for commodities such as maize or cassava really work. I really admire what DG Hartmann has done in that area. He’s putting the focus on markets. This is very important and I hope IITA will continue to do more of that.

Agriculture is not just about food, says Minister Adesina. Photo by IITA.
Agriculture is not just about food, says Minister Adesina. Photo by IITA.

Finally IITA needs to look at policy. When the Green Revolution happened in Asia, there were policies that drove the changes. The CG centers did not just leave the varieties there; they pushed and drove the necessary changes. So, there needs to be strong policy advocacy from IITA and other centers to help farmers have access to seeds, fertilizers, markets, and infrastructure. In the case of technology, don’t just produce technology and assume that, somehow, the technology will find its way to the farmer’s field. Stick with it, work with the Ministry of Agriculture; work with Government to make sure that the technology actually is in the farmer’s field and that it works.

Who is your role model?
I have two role models. My first role model is my father, who was a farmer. In those days, he used to work on people’s farms as a laborer with my grandfather. After days of hard work and at the age of 14, my father couldn’t read and write. He said agriculture wasn’t paying for him to go to school. Fortunately a Good Samaritan came around and saw him on the farm and took him to Lagos. That’s how my father was educated and eventually became a Government Auditor. That’s the only reason why you are interviewing me now; it’s because somebody sent my father to school.

My father told me that there are so many people who had missed opportunities in life just because agriculture was not working for them. So he taught me very early in life that if I ever found myself in a position to make a difference, especially for farmers, I should make sure agriculture work would for them. He said agriculture was not just about food; it’s about creating wealth for farmers, providing an income to send their kids to school and have a better life. And that has always been the guiding light in my profession: making sure that agriculture works for millions of poor farmers.

My second role model is Dr Norman Borlaug, the father of the Green Revolution in Asia, who inspired me so much. I believe in all that I do. I am driven by the fact that one day, I’ll give an account to God for the responsibilities and opportunities given me to change the lives of people. So it’s not just academic work; it’s a life mission for me, to make sure that agriculture works to transform the lives of our people. So in between my father teaching me the right values and Dr Borlaug showing me that it can be done, I have a very tall order to fill indeed.