Speech By Strive Masiyiwa, During The #AGRF2019 Presidential Summit
Your Excellency the President of Ghana, thank you so much for hosting us today, sir. I welcome His Excellency the President of Togo, the President of the Republic of Niger, the Vice President of Nigeria, the Prime Minister of Rwanda and our father and mentor, President Obasanjo as well as our friend the Right Honorable Tony Blair, and of course Mrs. Annan, the wife of our dear brother and founder Kofi Annan. My colleagues on the AGRA Board, our friends and partners, distinguished guests, AGRA staff and the farmers. I welcome you today.
As many of you know, this is my last conference in this role but not my last conference. I was here accompanying Kofi Annan to the last conference that took place here – our very first AGRF. But I also came here with him prior to that, when we were putting together the building blocks of what has become AGRA. It has been an honor and a privilege for me because when he decided to retire, he asked me to take over the chairmanship, a role I have now performed for nearly 10 years. Just before he left, him and I had discussed my need to also retire, and we had begun to put a process together.
When we had our first board meeting having set up AGRA, I expressed some trepidation to Kofi Annan. I said, “You know, I’m just a tech guy. I don’t know anything about farming.” He said, “That’s why I want you on this board.” So, I tried another shot. I said, “You know, I really should be out there being an entrepreneur.” He said, “Actually, now that I think about it, that’s why I want you on this board.” So, we kind of tried a few things and finally, he said, “You know, the reason I want you on this board,” and bear in mind, a couple of us, it was almost like a telecom’s board because for people like me and Mo Ibrahim and if people know Mo Ibrahim and I, we fight a lot, mostly about telecoms and he had become almost like a referee between us. And he said, “You see, it’s what you guys did in telecommunications that I want to see happen in agriculture.
Your excellences, 25 years ago as I’ve often said, 70% of our people had never heard a telephone ringing, not used one but they’d never heard it ring. Today, more than 70% of our people own a telephone. It was the beginning of our digital revolution. And so, I began to think of seeds like I think of telephones. When we started, I was given a statistic that said, “Only three African countries were exporting hybrid seeds in Sub-Sahara. It was Zambia, Zimbabwe and Kenya, a total of 2,000 metric tons. So, we said, “Well, okay so how do you make seeds?” That’s how telephone people look at things. And so, we began to invest money to develop seed companies. It was the low hanging fruit for us and it was like telephones. Today, I can report to you, excellences and to our dear friends that we have over 110 companies producing the seeds – about 110,000 metric tons a year.
So, I scrambled back and I went to see President Obasanjo, big mistake. He said, “This is how you’re going to do it, you need fertilizer. We must have fertilizer.” And together we had that fertilizer summit, your excellency you recall, and you were our guest speaker at the first AGRF here, and you spoke about fertilizer. At the time, the average usage of fertilizer was four kilograms per hectare. It is now over 20 kilograms per hectare rising quickly with some African countries already over 50 kilograms per hectare.
Now, why would they be using so much fertilizer in producing so much seed? The businessman in me says these people must be business people too. So, we begun to say, “Don’t call them farmers, call them business people. Let’s begin a business revolution.” But you cannot do anything unless you talk to the farmers themselves. So, Kofi Annan said to me, “We must visit the farmers every year.” And so, we would go out on field trips. He said, “No Gucci shoes please, just let’s visit the farmers.” We were a little bit more sensible than that and I relied on a lot of good friends, like a good officer of our organization at the time, Akin Adesina, who is now head of the African Development Bank (AfDB). But we listened to the farmers and they would say, “Mr. Annan, we need money, we need access to money. We need access to lands. We need you to advocate for us.” We realized that we had to become a strong partner to the governments. We had to be the ones helping you with strategies and listening to how you wanted to solve the problems.
And so, your excellences, I can’t stand here and mark my own exam paper. That will be marked in 2030 according to President Obasanjo who said that is when we will decide whether or not we delivered a Green Revolution on the continent of Africa. So, all I can say is we have some interesting green shoots on the ground, there is a momentum which I see in this room, there is an energy amongst the youth who are saying, “We don’t need a handout, we just need a hand up. Just show us what to do and we will do it.” They do not want to cross the Sahara and the Mediterranean your excellences, they want to develop their continent and they need us to help them.
Let me pay a tribute of course to my dear brother and mentor the late Kofi Annan. I always said that I never ever wore his shoes. They were too big so I just lived in them for the last 10 years. You cannot fill his shoes, you can only just look at them and occasionally be comfortable to live in them. He was a big hearted man and he set us an extraordinary vision.
Let me pay tribute to my colleagues at the foundations -the Rockefeller Foundation and the Gates Foundation – who laid the seeds and for the funding that we initially required to get this thing off the ground as well as the many partners, many of them national government partners like the USAID at the U.S. Government, President Obama was a massive champion when he came in, the British Government, DFID, the Scandinavian Governments, the German Government, and more recently the Chinese and the partnerships from the Middle East – everybody came. I can report to you, your excellences, wherever you pointed us to seek help, support, friendship, we were received with open doors and it is my task to pay tribute and to thank them.
Let me also pay tribute to my colleagues on the board, men and women from all over the world and Africa itself that have served during the 15 years since our organization was founded. The management and staff, for us as a board as I always say, actually our job is very easy. We just find the best people. I want to thank President Kagame because when we were in trouble, I went to him and said, “We are looking for somebody.” He said, “How can I help you?” I said, “I think your agricultural minister is just the person I need.” She was kicking and screaming but she’s done a fantastic job. Thank you Agnes for accepting that role.
Our board, by the way was decreed that it must at all times be 50% women or more. Let me pay tribute to the staff, the AGRA staff who I’ve always told will not get a pension because this is not a job for which you will be pensioned. I expect you to be out of here by 2030 and you’re young enough to go to your next job. But nevertheless, I thank you for your day-to-day work and professionalism as a greatest gathering of African experts trying to solve an African problem.
Finally, your excellences, allow me to pay tribute to the African farmer. Kofi Annan addressing us at our first board meeting said, “I know that you big guys, if we gave you the right incentives you can go out and you can produce all the food we want.” He said, “But that’s not the way this is going to be done. The African Green Revolution will be delivered successfully through the African smallholder farmer.” No matter where we are when we’re gathered here, we must not forget that it is about the African smallholder farmer. It is about improving their livelihoods, helping them to live dignified lives for which they earn a living and increase in their prosperity through their work as farmers.
Your excellences, allow me to pay my final tribute as chair and introduce you to my successor. My successor is His Excellency, the former Prime Minister of Ethiopia, a nation that has stood solidly and has led the way on this green revolution. Our board has elected him. We believe that he is the one who will complete this mission as I pass the baton to him. Thank you Prime Minister for taking this job.
Lastly, let me thank my family for giving me the opportunity and the support to have been here in all the times that I was away and then of course I thank God. I thank Him for the grace, I thank Him for the strength and I thank Him for the peace and I bless you in His name.
Thank you very much.