Interview with Kanayo F. Nwanze, President of the International Fund for Agricultural Development

Kanayo F. Nwanze, President of the International Fund for Agricultural Development. UN Photo/Rick Bajornas

15 October 2014 – Kanayo F. Nwanze has served at the helm of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), a UN specialized agency, for over five years. A national of Nigeria, Mr. Nwanze brings to the job over 35 years of experience across three continents, focusing on poverty reduction through agriculture, rural development and research.

Since it was created in 1977, IFAD has focused exclusively on rural poverty reduction, working with poor rural populations in developing countries to eliminate poverty, hunger and malnutrition; raise their productivity and incomes; and improve the quality of their lives. The Rome-based agency uses a mix of low-interest loans and grants to support agricultural and rural development programmes and projects, and has granted or lent nearly $13 billion to date.

Under Mr. Nwanze’s leadership, IFAD has stepped up its advocacy efforts to ensure that agriculture is a central part of the international development agenda, and that governments recognize the concerns of smallholder farmers and other poor rural people. Mr. Nwanze spoke with the UN News Centre ahead of this year’s World Food Day, observed annually on 16 October, about the need to invest in rural people, migration from rural to urban areas, and the impact of the Ebola epidemic on the food situation in West Africa.

UN News Centre: The theme [for World Food Day] is family farming and it is recognizing the coWe are actually at the doorsteps of another food crisis in West Africa.ntribution that family farmers have regarding food security. What will be your message to the world on that day?

Kanayo F. Nwanze: My message to the world actually would be very simple, and I will put it in the context of food security and sustainable development. Today, 80 per cent of the food that is consumed in the developing world, where we have the greatest challenge with hunger and poverty, is produced by smallholder, family farms. Now, on this World Food Day, we should actually decide to take action beyond words and conferences and seminars and declarations to actually invest in people – the rural people of the world that feed us.

I say invest in people, not just invest in agriculture, because it is the people that produce the food. Because if we do not do this, come 2025 or 2030 we will have a more serious challenge trying to feed the world. Without full transformation of the rural space, through massive investment in infrastructure and services that are needed by these rural people who produce the food, we cannot achieve sustainable development by 2025.

UN News Centre: Is that what you mean when you say invest in people and not agriculture? Because I think you once said that “if you invest in rural farmers, they will transform their rural spaces.”

Kanayo F. Nwanze: Yeah, you see there is a misconception that we just invest in agriculture as if agriculture itself is an entity. But who are those who practice the art and the science of agriculture? It’s people. It’s rural people. So what is needed is a change in mindset. The social dynamics that are involved between people and what they do is crucial to make it happen. That is why IFAD invests in rural people. And we invest in rural people because the primary source of income for their livelihoods and employment is agriculture. So we want to invest in them so they can be able to practice very sustainable agricultural systems.

IFAD President Kanayo F. Nwanze briefs journalists at UN Headquarters in New York (13 October 2014). Credit: UNTV

Then of course what comes along with investing in people? It’s investing in their own environment, their own social setting. By this I mean investing in rural roads, in amenities, in energy, in irrigation, in social services, schools, clinics and recreational facilities for the young people. Transforming the rural space so it becomes attractive for the youth to stay and develop and make a life and a living for themselves. I hope you understand the difference here when I say we must invest in people, not just in the system itself.

UN News Centre: Talking about youth, migration and jobs, is this something that you feel the world leaders have understood? That by transforming these rural spaces they can create jobs?

Kanayo F. Nwanze: I will say leaders of today are beginning to understand it. Why are they beginning to understand it? Because they can now see the massive impact of rural migration. And this can be generated or caused by the impact of climate change, extreme droughts that devastate their farms, their livelihoods and they have no other choice than to migrate into the urban cities. This can be because there are political events that cause migration of the rural people. I always say that what happens in Timbuktu today reverberates in London and Paris and Washington and Berlin. It is no longer an isolated issue because it affects the global dynamics. And we need to advise ourselves that the whole issue of youth today is all linked with the gross instability, the gross inequalities between the urban and rural space.

IFAD President Kanayo F. Nwanze visiting with silk producers during a visit to Oaxaca, Mexico, in July 2014. Photo: IFAD

For us – when I say us I mean IFAD – the inequalities between the rich and the poor are basically the inequalities between the urban and rural space. And when youth are totally disillusioned by their conditions in rural areas, they migrate to cities and urban spaces. But what do they get there? They get frustrated. They lose the social cohesion that the rural space, their villages and communities, provide to them. They become highly susceptible to rhetoric and to extremism. And we know what happens. We cannot isolate the crisis in North Africa, or the Arab Spring or the migrations that are taking place in the Americas from the South to the North, to simple political instability. It is all linked to hunger and poverty. People are migrating because they believe life is better in the cities and in the advanced world. So hundreds and hundreds of people are dying in the Atlantic, in the Mediterranean, because they are trying to migrate and they drown. Is that the legacy that we are going to leave to future generations?

UN News Centre: You wrote an open letter to African Union heads of State. And in that open letter you sort of gave them these ideas but also said that declarations don’t feed people. Do you feel that your message has been understood? Has there been any action taken to follow up?

Kanayo F. Nwanze: I was calling on African leadership to go beyond declarations and to go beyond conferences – that is true. But that does not mean they are not doing something. I was basically saying they have to double their efforts. We have to understand that most countries are coming from a long way. Although we say that less than 8 – definitely less than 10 – African countries are not meeting their Maputo declaration of allocating a minimum of 10 per cent of their budgets to agriculture, we must understand that many other countries are coming from close to zero. And so, some of them are between 2.5 and 5 and 6 per cent… so [they are] coming from a very low level. There is certainly an improvement and they have competing demands. But what I am saying is that we have to double our efforts.

IFAD President Kanayo F. Nwanze helps to plant a tree to launch the second phase of the reforestation of Mlanje Province in Angola. Photo: IFAD/D. Paqui

It’s quite an irony because in the same breath, we know that at least six, if not eight, of the fastest growing economies in the world are in Africa. And we are talking about an African Renaissance. But where is it going to happen? We know that these rapid growth rates that are taking place, economic growth rates, GDP growth rates, are being fuelled by an extractive industry – by oil and gas, by diamond and by gold. But are we seeing the impact of this rapid growth in the social fabric of their societies? Is this transformation actually taking place in the rural space?

This is the time for us to grab the opportunity. To begin to invest in the agricultural systems that make the fabric and the livelihoods of the rural space that feed us. This has been done elsewhere. It is not difficult. When you look back, 30 to 40 years ago, China, Brazil, Viet Nam… where are they today? Where were they in those days? We know that China lost about a million people in the 70s and 80s due to extreme famine. Brazil was an aid recipient 30 to 45 years ago. And Viet Nam came out of a war and today it is the second largest exporter of rice. And rice production by the way, in Viet Nam, 60 per cent is by smallholder producers. So what am I saying? Small producers in countries whose economies are based on agriculture can actually grow and transform their systems through a massive investment in agriculture and in the rural space. It can happen. It has happened, and it can be repeated in Africa.

UN News Centre: But what do you do when you are faced with epidemics like Ebola?

Kanayo F. Nwanze: That obviously is a problem. It is a problem in the sense that the three countries that are today unfortunately massively affected do not have the infrastructure or the institutions to manage it properly. Number two, I hesitate to say this but it is the truth - that the reaction of the international community has been slow. Why? Because Ebola can be contained. The case of Nigeria is a good example. I mean you have read articles about how successful the Nigerian Government and its health system were in managing the Ebola crisis in Nigeria. Ebola, like many diseases, has a threshold after which the human system cannot recover from it. If we had intervened at the appropriate time with the necessary massive medical support services in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, I am not sure we would be where we are. But be that as it may, so we are there today.

I would actually like to express my appreciation for those countries that are today deploying massive assistance to help these three countries because it is not just Ebola itself as a disease. It is what it is doing to the agricultural systems. I understand that in Sierra Leone alone, 40 per cent of the farms have been abandoned. Food is left in the fields to rot because farmers are either scared or they are no longer there to grow the food. Do you know what is going to happen in a few weeks from now, when harvests are supposed to be in their granaries and there is no food? We are actually at the doorsteps of another food crisis in West Africa. Because not only is it a question of the food not being produced because farms are abandoned, but also, a country like Senegal depends on a lot of food imports. In fact, the intra- regional trade is going to be affected. So we are looking at the food crisis not just in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone but in the whole of West Africa. I think we have to begin to look at a future crisis and begin now to put in place the necessary foundations, infrastructure to be able to attack the problem when it surfaces.

UN News Centre: IFAD has been doing a lot in terms of trying to get the message out, in terms of supporting smallholder farmers through grants and other programmes but there are reports that there is a change coming. IFAD is changing its brand. If that is true, can you tell us what is being done and why?

Kanayo F. Nwanze: I believe we are changing our brand and framing it in the context of the reality of today. And if I may, what we have changed so far that is concrete is our tag line – investing in people. The former tag line was enabling poor rural people to overcome poverty. But that is the result of something that we do. What do we do? We invest in rural people. And the consequence of our investment, like every other investment, is you expect some returns. And the return for us is transforming people’s lives, enabling them to move out of poverty themselves. We don’t move them out of poverty, but we give them the tools, we give them the capacity by investing in them and transforming their lives to move out of poverty. That is a big difference. Actually our tag line today basically demonstrates what we actually do. We don’t pretend to be the ones that are moving them out of poverty. For them to move out of poverty it takes many other things. But I think first and foremost we must invest in people and that is what IFAD does.

UN News Centre: Can you share with us one of your success stories?

In southern India, President Kanayo F. Nwanze visits IFAD-funded Post-Tsunami Sustainable Livelihoods Programme for the Coastal Communities of Tamil Nadu. Photo: Susan Beccio/IFAD

Kanayo F. Nwanze: We have several of them. About five weeks ago I was in Ethiopia for the Africa Green Revolution Forum in Addis Ababa but I took time off like I always do to visit one of the projects that we support 200 kilometres south of Addis. And here I interacted in a community that was involved in a rural finance project. It was mostly women. And I heard stories from women and some men about how they organized themselves. Today they have several cooperatives and have formed a union. So first, the basis there is you help them to organize themselves. Because when people organize themselves, community action makes a big difference and this tells you how we operate. We operate at the community level. Basically we actually say we are a community-driven institution because we respond to the needs of communities.

To cut a long story short. They have several savings and credit associations called SARCOs. And among themselves the women were telling us how they have gone from borrowing 100 birrs – about 5, 10 years ago – to today they can borrow, they can take loans from their association of 1,000 [birrs] and they can pay it off in 6 months. Some of them have been able to buy cattle. Some of them have been able to now buy land. So we help them to have land titling which is key to investing. You have to own the land. And they are telling us how they are sending their children to school. One of them said how she actually now has two children in the university in Addis Ababa. What for me was more touching was the chairman – interestingly enough most of these associations have men as their chair trying to help them organize themselves. He took us to his house, he had a car, he showed us pictures of his children who are in school.

You feel that sense of gratification that you have contributed. An institution like IFAD is contributing to these kinds of untold stories and I am happy that I have this opportunity because there are so many untold stories that we should tell the world of what it means to invest in rural people as a fundamental foundation for the fabric of our societies. How the transformation of the rural space guarantees sustainable, long-term development of the urban areas. Because the rural space, rural communities provide services, not just food alone, services and employment opportunities and environmental services – clean air and clean water – to the urban space. So this dynamic, this nexus between the rural and urban dynamics is so important that we should capitalize on it. That our leaders will realize that… for those economies that are the fastest growing in the world this is the time to begin to invest the wealth generated by extractive industries in agriculture, but more importantly, in rural transformation, in the people’s lives.


UN Decoded: What is IFAD?

The International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD)



Read related news story:

Investing in small-scale farmers can help lift over 1 billion people out of poverty – UN report