Agnes Kalibata has led the African Green Revolution Alliance (AGRA), an African NGO founded in 2006 with the help of Kofi Annan to boost agriculture across the continent, since 2014. Prior to that the native Rwandan served as Kigali’s Minister of Agriculture and Animal Resources. In this exclusive extract, Kalibata sits down with Harry Hagan, Senior Economic Adviser, Africa Division at the UK’s Department for International Development (DfID) headquarters in London to discuss progress in the agriculture across the continent.

Can you share a little bit about your background, your passion and what led you to take this important position in AGRA?

My background is an agricultural scientist, an entomologist. I went to the University of Massachusetts. I would say that my background was extremely important in forming my career in Rwanda because I went to the Ministry of Agriculture not as a politician but really from a scientific perspective.

When I was in the Ministry I found two things most critical: one how do you drive public spending into agriculture and the other is driving agricultural productivity. There my scientific background came into use because I knew that with a good combination of seeds and fertilisers, farmers take only two seasons to have surplus.

But I was not prepared for two challenges: how quickly the market becomes a problem and how critical policies are in driving whatever it is you want to drive. At AGRA that’s one of the things we are doing: how do you drive policies faster and how do you use evidence to drive the business of agriculture.

When you go around ministries in Africa do you find the mix of technical staff and policymakers is the right mix, or do you think there is an imbalance?

The intention is to get technical people into the ministries, but it nearly always ends up as politics. That said, we’ve seen a lot technical people in Burkina Faso and in Mali where you see an interest to drive knowledge into the sector and we see the same thing in Kenya.

Rwanda has stayed the course in terms of ensuring that the people that man the ministry understand what needs to be done in the sector. It has a direct effect on what happens in the agricultural sector.

As an organisation, AGRA is going through expansion and transformation and DfID is very encouraged by the direction. Could you briefly explain what you see as the role of AGRA to support the transformation of agriculture in Africa?

AGRA was created as an institution which recognised that Africa lacked the kind of technologies it needs to advance the agriculture sector forward. Let me give you an example. In Rwanda, seeds in one district may not work in two different localities in the same district because one is at 1600m above sea level and another 2000m.

So AGRA was put in place to find those locally adopted varieties which would work in the right environments. When I became Permanent Secretary here in Rwanda in 2007, I could not find a variety that was locally adopted for me to drive agricultural transformation in Rwanda. They told me they I had to wait two years for locally adopted varieties.

AGRA came into that space to ensure that that doesn’t happen. In 18 countries now we have businesses which are driving locally adopted varieties and taking them to the farmers. So local seed dealerships and agro-seed dealerships are now able to take the business to the farmer.

As a result the distance the farmer must travel has reduced from 60km in 2006 to 11km now – and even in Kenya, where the private sector is much more aggressive, it’s 4km.

The disappointment in the last three to four years is that we have sufficient technologies across 18 commodities which can double or triple farmer yields, but they are not reaching every farmer.

So what we decided to do differently was three things. First how to strengthen state capacity to better deliver to farmers. The next is the policy part; we focus on moving policies forward in the countries where we work. The third part is the private sector – recognising that the only way to boost agriculture is to involve the private sector.

How do you think governments view working with an organisation like AGRA, which is Africa based but is still an NGO?

The development of the African continent is as important to me as it is to you the minister so what I’m trying to say is that we can offer help. We have experts in AGRA from about 30 different nationalities. In each country we make sure we hire an expert from that particular country and we give them to the minister and say you can trust them, work with them and let’s move forward. In a nutshell, we help ministers understand that AGRA is a safe space to operate.

We also work with our donor partners in a way that helps them understand some of the complexities on the ground. When we went into Ghana for example, the ministry and the development community were on two completely separate sides of the coin. The minister was new and he didn’t understand where the development community was coming from. We helped them come together and understand each other and actually helped the whole programme take off.

Are views changing within African governments about the role of the private sector?

I think there’s the general perception now that it’s okay to involve the private sector in what you do. Many countries are beginning to understand now that the ‘ease of doing business’ is critical for helping the private sector.

As for subsidies that’s a different conversation. In 2008 in Rwanda, they were critical to driving the agricultural sector because there wasn’t even a private sector to talk about. We had to buy fertiliser and auction them to the private sector because they had no capacity to purchase from the international markets.

The private sector has developed in most of these areas; now you are seeing 40% of farmers are willing to buy seeds and 50% are willing to buy fertiliser. What we are trying to do is help governments rethink the subsidy sector because I think from where we sit it undermines investment in the agricultural sector.

It’s about smart subsidies which means they are targeting communities in the sector which is struggling. Even then there has to be a timeline and when that finishes governments should get out and find other places which need help. Public sector development will need to keep shifting according to the need to move resources from one place to another.

What is really holding back the agricultural sector in Africa in your view – given the market demand and the natural resources?

I believe in prioritisation because there are a number of challenges. Number one is the policy landscape because to have anything function you need functional institutions. Most of the countries in sub-Saharan Africa don’t have functional input markets because the policy and regulatory environment isn’t there.

The second is markets. Markets are critical for the movement of technology and inputs. For us to be able to scale and achieve a green revolution farmers need to be able to buy seeds and fertilisers.

Why would farmers who don’t have access to market produce more than they need. It’s a burden. So as long as our markets don’t allow produce to leave the markets our farmers will not do that. In Kenya for example, when a farmer has one acre he is able to produce five metric tonnes of maize. The immediate thing the farmer will do is to cut the plot in half and use the new plot for horticulture because Kenya has a huge export market to Europe for horticulture. So the market defines the farmer behaviour.

We sometimes talk about financing but when we look at the amount of financing which comes to the African continent it’s not little but it’s fragmented. It’s not made to be productive. We need to think about how to implement productive funding for the agri-sector. The question is how does donor presence adapt.

Finally, there must be mechanisms which allow us to hold countries accountable. We want people to understand that when they receive resources they actually need to be accountable for these resources.

As a former minister, what do you think development partners can do better to support and influence policy development?

There are many ways to add value to a country. In terms of advice, I think that the voice which accompanies development resources could be a little bit more delicate. ‘Either you do this or we don’t fund’: I think that language needs to be toned down.

It needs to be if you do all of this we don’t have a problem funding you but all these things need to be in place. On the other hand, donors can put their feet down with regards to pushing the right behavior and countries will listen.

A key dimension is how we work together differently to address unreliability and short-termism of government policies affecting cross-border food trade. What do you think we can achieve in that cross-border space?

One of the things is to take advantage of some of the protocols which have already been put in place. Like for example right now the continent has just confirmed the 22nd signature for the Continental Free Trade Area (CFTA).

The private sector has huge interest in getting the markets to function together. Countries like South Africa and Nigeria find the CFTA a little uncomfortable because they are trying to get to grips with the small markets in their own country but what about the 1.2bn population market out there.

Do you see more progress in East Africa?

Politics aside East Africa has made a lot of progress in terms of getting the trade environment going. When I was in Rwanda DfID funded Trademark which helped get the ball rolling. At least in the region there is significant movement, hopefully the political challenges will go away.

We know you’re very involved in several groups who work in resilience. This is a top priority for the UK government, it informs how we are working in many sectors and regions. What do you see as the priorities for African leaders and global communities on resilience.

In term of climate change it’s very devasting for communities as it completely undermines their base. And it’s not just happening in East Africa, you saw what happened in southern Africa. So we have a huge responsibility to ensure that the farmers who are emerging from poverty thanks to technology don’t go backwards.

Also from a community and business perspective we need to secure the environment and ensure that the markets are larger and more resilient. Since 2015, 24m people have fallen out of the food security bracket meaning that 24m people that were feeding themselves are no longer able to do so. Zimbabwe lost 10% of their livestock, 25,000 households, not to mention their need for food. Malawi is in the same situation and Mozambique even worse. From an agricultural perspective climate change is the biggest threat we see.


Originally published on NewAfrican Magazine