When journalist and broadcaster Jeff Koinange introduced the opening plenary session of AGRF 2018, he said that efforts made over recent years have “made agriculture a buzzword, a bit sexy.”

The remainder of the event only served to emphasise the truth of this statement as a procession of speakers asked “how will you lead?”

First up was AGRA President Dr. Agnes Kalibata. After a brief pause in memory of Kofi Annan, she remembered how Africa seized the moment in 2016 to grasp agricultural technologies to drive progress. However, as she reminded the packed auditorium, this is no time to be complacent about past achievements. It’s time to question ourselves, to ask what is holding us back? We must set an example to do things differently, to lead, to measure and grow.

The Hon. Dr. Gérardine Mukeshimana, Minister of Agriculture and Animal Resources of the Republic of Rwanda, emphasised these sentiments. As she reminded us, we are here to shake up the new ideas and initiatives that will take Africa to a new level. As a result, we will be better placed to rise to the challenge of enabling smallholder farmers to become fully integrated into the continental ecosystem.

His Excellency Edouard Ngirente, Prime Minister of the Republic of Rwanda, followed with a straightforward message. To transform African agriculture, we must turn strategy into action. And to give all African citizens the decent lives they deserve, business as usual simply will not work.

As he said, the Government of Rwanda is committed to working with all partners to deliver a brighter future. He called upon all delegates to participate and strike deals to remove impediments in the way of progress. And then, to great applause, he declared AGRF 2018 officially open.

Next on stage was agricultural pioneer Professor John W. Mellor, Professor Emeritus of Cornell University and President of John Mellor Associates. At the age of 90, he has recently published a new book, Agricultural Development and Economic Transformation, which addresses the key implementation issues facing the continent.

As he reminded us, agriculture is the sine qua non of private-sector activities – but the input of government is crucial in implementation. Not just from the Ministry of Agriculture, he argued, but departments throughout the whole of government.

As agriculture cuts across so many sectors, the Head of State needs to be central to a shared agricultural vision. Get this right, and agriculture is an immensely powerful enabler of growth elsewhere in the economy. As he said, “the faster the agricultural sector grows, the faster its relative importance declines”. And he finished with a rallying call, to get more experienced, trained and practical people involved in agriculture at the most senior levels of government.

Following these opening remarks, a panel discussed some of the conclusions and issues of the Africa Agriculture Status Report (AASR). Dr. Godfrey Bahiigwa, Director, Department of Rural Economy and Agriculture, African Union Commission, highlighted how the commitment of African heads of state will make it easier to achieve fundamental goals including reduced poverty, ending hunger, creating jobs, improving health outcomes.

Jonathan Said, Head of Inclusive Growth and Private-Sector Development Practice at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, believes there is a strong passion and drive at all levels of government. However, he warned, challenges lie in creating systems that work. Leaders, he said, now need greater support from all ministries and agencies in government to successfully create systems that work.

Dr. David Phiri, Sub Regional Coordinator for Eastern Africa, FAO, encouragingly pointed out, despite climate change, communities across Africa are becoming more resilient. Not a single person died during West Africa’s worst drought of recent years, he said, and this was reflected by the limited impact of drought on eastern Africa as well. He believes these are powerful signs that governments are becoming more sophisticated in running effective systems.

Mamadou Biteye, Managing Director of the Africa Regional Office, The Rockefeller Foundation highlighted the role of philanthropy, pointing out that it is not a substitute for what governments should do. “Their roles are complementary,” he said. “We can provide catalytic risk capital to drive innovation, but to grow to scale new developments need sound policies behind them.”

Dr. Holger Kray, Head, Africa Agriculture Policy Unit, World Bank, believes that profound transformation is happening right now. He highlighted some of the key factors driving change. These included the way in which urbanisation and a shifting target market are creating greater opportunities for processed and value-added food. As a result, money is to be made in African agriculture, demonstrated by an 800% increase in the value of food traded in domestic value chains since 2000.