Farming by Choice Will Drive Africa’s Food Security

Q&A with Strive Masiyiwa, Chair AGRA Board

Africa has once again suffered the devastating consequences of climate change with cyclone Idai tearing most of Southern Africa including your home country Zimbabwe. Where does this leave us?

I have personally been involved in helping those affected and seeing the effects of the cyclone was sobering; 1.7 million people affected. This is a reminder of the urgency with which we need to act as we are still vulnerable to the devastating effects of climate change. According to Oxfam, in Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia and Somalila, 10.7 million people face severe hunger – a situation that could be made worse by the poor rainfall predicted from April through to June. However, our generation has the means to reverse the effects of climate change if we master the wil.

AGRA says it exists to fulfil the vision that Africa can feed itself and the world. With exponential population growth is that a realistic goal?

You know, I was in Paris seeing President Macron about climate change ahead of the One Plannet Summit he co-roganized with President Kenyatta about a month ago, and we had an interesting chat about Africa’s current and projected populations and the challenges that it presents. Today 1.2 billion live in Africa and that figure is set to quadruple by the end of the century; that’s 4 billion mouths to feed. We agreed that’s a scary figure, but it doesn’t frighten me. In 1957 the population was 250 million, that’s a quarter of what it is today, and if our fathers were able to cope with that scale of growth, then so can we.

The challenge must have been smaller for our forefathers?

Not at all. They were dealing with a whole load of problems that we don’t have to worry about. Things like nation building! When I was growing up back in the 60s, something like 35 African countries gained their independence. They also were less educated than we are. And it wasn’t just the lack of schooling our fathers had to contend with: they had wars! I’m old enough to remember the blood shed of the Ghanaian coup in 1966, I remember Idi Amin in Uganda, Mbuto in Zaire and Mugabe in Zimbabwe – all gone. Since last year’s Eritrea – Ethiopia peace summit there is no conflict between African nations, and even that was a North Korea-South Korea, no war no peace, situation for most of the last decade. Asia can look enviously at our continent; we can get the heads of 54 African countries to sit in a room for discussions and nobody fights. Try that with India and Pakistan.

You mentioned that education is a gateway to freedom, does this give the current generation an advantage over the previous generations?

Absolutely. Back in the 60s when I was growing up in Zambia, there were just two universities schools in the entire country. When the first university opened, it was like the moon landings we were so excited. Now Zambia, and many other African nations, have free primary schools and 80% of primary aged children are in education. Education is the gateway to freedom and we are the most educated generation in history.

But surely the challenges of over-population, and producing enough food to feed Africa, are at least equal to those of the past?

Maybe, but an interesting statistic I got from Bill Gates the other day: the growth rate of life expectancy in Africa is the fastest in the world. Our population growth isn’t just about reproducing more, we are also living longer. Which means we must be doing something right! Since my very first day at AGRA, not for one moment have I believed that we would not declare full food sufficiency by 2030. I’ve never worried about the quantitative side or the ability of our generation growing up with peace as a dividend. My concerns have always been around sustainability. We have already come so far, and I have never doubted that we will achieve our mission. Never again will we see the like of the mass starvation of ’84 to ’85 in Ethiopia; 1.2 million dead, 2.5 million displaced, and those harrowing pictures in every paper and on every news channel across the globe. Producing food is no longer the problem, the challenge now is to do it sustainably.

So, what does the future hold?

Well, I’ve stopped talking about agriculture and started talking about food and the food industry, of which agriculture is just a small part. I’m becoming more ambitious. Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana are the world’s biggest cocoa grower with revenues of $3.7 billion a year. West Africa accounts for two thirds of the world’s cocoa production – $6.8 billion a year.

That’s an achievement we should all be proud of?

It is, until you realise that a single company, Mars Inc. the biggest chocolate manufacturer in the world, has annual sales of $35 billion. They buy our cocoa and they make a load of money and I don’t blame them. I blame my generation and an education system that didn’t make us innovative.

That’s quite an indictment. How does the future look for Strive Masiyiwa?

Good question! I want Mars to pitch up looking for cocoa and we tell them, sorry we don’t have any. Why? Because we’re too busy making chocolate. We’re too busy making products with our own produce, just like the United States. You know, the Saudis are the largest exporter of oil, but the States is the biggest producer. They just don’t sell it to anyone, because they’re too busy turning it into plastics, tyres, soap, footballs, paint, aspirin and a million other products. So, when I’m told that Kenya has started producing oil, I’m not interested, I want to hear what they’re going to do with it. When Zimbabwe discovers lithium, I want to hear about all the batteries they’re going to make. Value addition is the future.

This sounds like a departure from agriculture, and surely that’s your focus?

It is, and there’s no departure, because we will never generate the prosperity we need if we don’t raise our game in agriculture. That doesn’t mean we are going to stop talking about food production, but the way we look at it has to change, and we need to re-imagine our rural communities. Because we are never going to stop migration to the city if we can’t create a vision for our rural communities and we want the next generation to aspire to a life at the sharp end of agriculture.

What do you mean by the sharp end of agriculture?

I was recently at a conference where they were talking about a solar package sold to the rural poor on hire purchase, like it’s a big deal. I don’t want patronising products, something that can power a couple of light bulbs, when they could have electricity. How are people to have aspirations if we expect them to make do? We need to dream big and make sure that technological developments are used to their full capacity.

Innovation is accelerating agricultural progress across the continent, can you give an example that stands out for you?

In 2000 in my country there were 40,000 tractors and Zimbabwe had the most developed African agriculture sector outside of South Africa. Today there are 15,000 tractors and people are back using cattle to plough their fields. I recently bought into astart-up that uses an ‘Uber for tractor’. It has taken all the tractors and put them on a database and let smallholder farmers access that database using an SMS. Now any farmer who wants a tractor can summon one and it will be there in 24 hours, paid for using mobile money and ready to free him from the drudgery of the hoe. 15,000 tractors can do the work of 40,000. That’s technology in action. We know we aren’t going hungry anymore, so the future has to be about making people more prosperous.

How does this fit with the Green Revolution?

I keep hearing about how it happened in Asia and how we need to do the same thing here in Africa. I disagree. We must do it our way, engage all the new ideas – better seeds, better access to markets – but also get a bit more ambitious and start understanding the bigger issues. We need to challenge access to finance, understand the role of women and make sure they get a fair share of the benefits, and finally to make sure that those on the front line are there out of choice, not because they got left behind.

According to the FAO the average age of an African farmer is 60. How will agriculture attract the next generation?

We need agriculture to be prosperous, and we need rural lives to be comfortable. The hoe should be consigned to a museum far away from Africa. Technology is how we do it. Then we will get young people moving from the city back to working in agriculture because it’s cutting edge, earns them a good living and rivals the life they could have in the city.

What is AGRA’s role and tell me how it fits with other institutions in the arena?

Ultimately, we want to create an efficient African food system, and we do that through grants and working with governments to build capacity. Our approach is collaborative, and we have relationships with all the other players in our sector; from AECF, an AGRA spin-off, supporting businesses in rural communities, to a partnership with CTA that created Pitch AgriHack, a competition to support young agriculture entrepreneurs. What makes us unique is that we are working towards our own obsolescence; we will know our work is done when we no longer have a role.

Tell us about the board you chair.

I am very lucky to be with working such an incredible group of people. There are 17 of us, including me, from over 14 countries around the world and about 50/50 gender balance. It is an incredible collection of prominent personalities including former heads of state,ex-ministers, bankers, business leaders and entrepreneurs, as well as agriculture specialists that provides governance oversight to AGRA. We meet about 4 times a year to provide governace. As far as boards go, this is one of the most committed with attendance in meetings at nearly 100%.

I have been very fortunate to chair such a board. One of the major issue they are now dealing with is my succession. So, they are fully seized with that process to ensure that just as the succession between Mr. Annan and myself was smooth, the succession between me and my successor will also be smooth.

What would you like your legacy to be?

When I’m gone, I want to know that no one is ever going to go hungry on this continent again. If there’s droughts and climate change, we’ve taken care of it. They will have the right seeds and the right technology to do it. Young people will have gone back to agriculture and turned it into an industry, with brands that compete with Mars, and chocolate bars coming out of our ears!