How Africa's Food Systems Offer Connection, Development and Climate Resilience

Dr Debisi Araba, a recognized public policy and strategy specialist based in Africa, talks about his journey, the Africa Green Revolution Forum (AGRF), the challenges posed by COVID19, the realities of climate-smart agriculture, and what innovations we can expect in Africa.

Dr Debisi Araba, a recognized public policy and strategy specialist based in Africa, talks about his journey, the Africa Green Revolution Forum (AGRF), the challenges posed by COVID19, the realities of climate-smart agriculture, and what innovations we can expect in Africa. Kirti Manian (01:04):Hi Debisi, welcome to our show. We are truly honoured to have you with us. I am going to get started by asking you this. Can you take us through your career arc, and was there a defining moment in your journey towards a more coherent understanding of food security and sustainability?

Debisi Araba (01:21): Thank you. It’s a pleasure joining you this morning, and greetings from Nairobi, Kenya. Well, I don’t know how much time you have, I’ll be as brief as I can.

Kirti Manian (01:30): [laughter]

Debisi Araba (01:31): I have an undergrad degree in physical geography. And to be fair, when I went in, I chose the course specifically because I had an affinity for the environment. I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do, but geography was broad enough as an undergraduate program to give me a solid base. But I would say, towards the end of my four year, the four-year undergraduate program, I knew I wanted to work in sustainable development. And so, I reached out to a few senior members of the faculty and during conversations with them, I gravitated more towards renewable technologies, clean technologies.

And I came across a brochure from the University of Newcastle at the time. So, my undergrad program was at the University of Ibadan in Nigeria. I came across a brochure from the University of Newcastle, U. K, and they have this interesting program called an M.Sc program in Clean Technology. And it was, it was a program that gave you a foundational grounding in clean and renewable technologies, but also business management, so, the business of sustainable development. And so, we had a lot of career talks and seminars by leading global business leaders and thought leaders and engineers and scientists in renewables and sustainable development.

Anyway, I then chose to do a final project on making a business case for recycling because at the time, the United Kingdom and, of course the rest of the European Union, they had a legal framework in the U.K, it was called the LATS agreement, the landfill allowance tax scheme where they were trading the amount or the volume of recyclable materials that each county in the United Kingdom could send to landfill. So, that got me into waste management so to speak.

Now as I was wrapping that up, I worked for a year as a senior consultant with the city council in Newcastle. And towards the end of my time there as a consultant, I had written to a few universities pitching ideas for a PHD program in waste management. Again, I lived in Lagos, I grew up in Lagos, Nigeria. And at the time, plastic waste was a menace clogging drains, causing flooding of course, leading to the sort of second, third order effective creating a public health crisis, increasing the prevalence of malaria because we had a lot of stagnant water, pools of water which was a fertile breeding ground for mosquitoes.

And so, I was accepted and invited to take on a PHD at Imperial College which I started in 2006. And the basic premise of my PHD was why do we have failed waste management programs and policies. And so, I did a historical analysis of waste management in Nigeria going into the 1800s. And, historically I found out that we actually never had good sustainable sound waste management policies ever in Lagos for different reasons.

Kirti Manian (04:46): Right.

Debisi Araba (04:47): And so, my curiosity sort of powered me through the PHD. I finished that with bold ambitions to come back to Nigeria to reform the environmental management, waste management space. My focus really was on environmental policy, looking at the policy context of decision making.

And I had a serendipitous encounter with a Minister of Aagriculture who had just been appointed in Nigeria. And out of curiosity, I asked him what was his vision for his tenure as minister. And he took me on this really vivid journey. I mean he painted a picture that was so vivid in my mind, I still remember it like it was yesterday. He shared his vision, his ambition, his goals. That man is now the President of the African Development Bank, a good friend of mine, Akinwumi Adesina.
And after the conversation, I knew I had to work for him. And so, I didn’t know how to pivot from a curious question to how do I support you on this journey. But as fortune would have it, he asked me to join his team as his environmental policy advisor. And so, I did. Started in late 2011, moved to Nigeria in 2012 and took on additional portfolios as personal assistant and senior policy advisor, senior technical advisor to the minister of agriculture in Nigeria.

And that’s where I engaged with the agriculture sector, I would say from a policy perspective. But my damascene moment happened I would say at some point in 2013. We were driving in the north west of the country in rice fields. And I was just looking all around me, and there were people who would probably never have even seen their state capital, talk less of the federal capital of Nigeria.

Kirti Manian (06:44): Yeah.

Debisi Araba (06:45): But people were thriving economically because of sound public policies of creating improved efficiency for distributing input subsidies. So, we had come up with a mobile based electronic wallet system for improving the efficiency of input subsidies. So, farmers were getting access to improved seed varieties, access to fertilizer for the first time in their lives, they were getting connected to markets. Lives were being transformed; I mean I could see this change in real time.

It revealed to me the core power of agriculture, to transform lives, and by extension transform economies. So, yeah, that’s the journey I suppose. There is a lot more to say, but that was the moment that got me to the realization of the transformative power of the agriculture sector.
Kirti Manian (07:37): I find it so interesting. You, completely in that sense pivoted right, and all because you met somebody who inspired you in that sense and gave you the vision that you were looking for at some level as well. So, I find it very, very interesting.

You have talked about your background. Can you tell us more about your organization Africa Green Revolution Forum, what are key challenges that you are facing, are these different from COVID times, if they are different, please tell us more about it? Will you please start off by telling us more about your organization as well?

Debisi Araba (08:08): Yes. So, the AGRF has a unique history. It started between 2006 and 2008. It began as the Africa Green Revolution Conferences. They used to be held in Oslo, in Norway for the first three years. And through discussions with Mr. Kofi Annan, the late Kofi Annan, former Secretary General of the United Nations, he instigated a process to bring that platform to the continent of Africa. And so, the first AGRF summit was held in Ghana, in Accra in 2010 then under the leadership of President Atta Mills of Ghana.

And the AGRF is a platform, it’s a multi stakeholder platform. It’s held annually. So, since 2012 it’s held annually in cities across the continent. It brings together absolutely everybody involved in agriculture and food systems. So, political leaders, heads of states, ministers, brings business leaders at all scales all the way from smallholder farmers to large scale commercial agri businesses, development partners, leaders of development partner organizations, leaders of research organizations, thought leaders, political, non-governmental organizations, youth organizations, women led organizations. Everybody who is involved, who has a stake in agriculture and food systems is involved in the AGRF. And by extension that literally means everybody, right because one of the few things that connects us as a global community of living, breathing humans is food. We all need food to survive.

So, everyone is involved in AGRF, and AGRF is aligned to, now we have a five-year strategy aligned to helping African economies achieve the goals of the Malabo Declaration, but also the Africa Union Agenda 2063, and of course the U.N Sustainable Development Goals. So, we are helping economies to thrive. So, we really are the partner for prosperity in Africa.

Kirti Manian (10:16): What are the key challenges you are kind of facing, and are these different from before COVID, or is it similar kinds of challenges, or has COVID changed the nature of how you are functioning?

Debisi Araba (10:28):Right, the way we function is the same. I would say the challenges that we are addressing might be slightly different. But in a broader context, maybe not necessarily so. So, COVID, the pandemic is hit once in a generation type of event.

Kirti Manian (10:44): Yeah.

Debisi Araba (10:45): But because of the way the world is now globalized, we have all these sensitivities to supply chains. So, what happens to consumers in Japan can affect what happens to producers in Namibia for example. Now, the way the pandemic has hit agriculture and food systems, it’s not just one part, but the system. So, it’s not just production, it’s everything. So, it’s production, it’s distribution, it’s processing, it’s consumption, it’s retail. We are rethinking, well, not necessarily rethinking, but the entire scope of agriculture and food systems has been affected by the pandemic.

Now, that brings the wider question or context of resilience to the fore. Previously we would talk about climate change as the existential threat to mankind and to agriculture and food systems. But this just amplifies the need for building resilient agriculture and food systems. A pandemic, yes, we didn’t expect it, but the more robust and resilient our systems are, the easier it would be for the systems to absorb these shocks and bounce back to productivity.

So, 2020 will go down as maybe not an annus horribilis, but it will be one for the ages. I think the knock-on effect, the domino effect of how the pandemic has affected the global economy and how we respond to this, is left to be seen. Yes, production has shrunk, demand has shrunk. I mean I was looking in the news today and I saw that there are projections for the South African economy to shrink by as much as 40% as a result of COVID 19 and other external factors. And I think goodness, what’s the impact on the global economy, we will only begin to find out in the first/second quarters of 2021.

Kirti Manian (12:38): Yeah.

Debisi Araba (12:39): But without analysing COVID 19, I would say we still need to eat, we still need to feed the world. We are still addressing all the challenges that we had pre pandemic. We have climate change, climate change isn’t taking a breather or taking it’s knee off our neck. We still have to address how we produce healthy, safe, nutritious, affordable, accessible food for the world’s population and address all these other external factors and ensure that those who are involved in agriculture and food systems are thriving economically.

So, agriculture is quite complicated you know. It’s not just basically producing food, you know it’s how you finance that, it’s the policy frameworks around creating an environment, it’s how you create jobs, stable, lasting, sustainable jobs, it’s how you ensure equality and equity, gender equality across spectrum of economic opportunities. It’s also how you create opportunities for the youth.

Africa has the youngest population. We will have millions more coming into the labour market. How do you ensure that you create economic opportunities for the teeming masses of youth across the continent. It’s not my vision to see millions of youth tilling the soil on farms. I don’t think that’s the glorious vision I have for agriculture and food systems in Africa. What I would like to see is millions more working higher up the value chain, working in mechanization, working in research, working in retail, working on processing, working on logistics, distribution et cetera.

So, agriculture and food systems I think there are many more opportunities beyond the farm. And so, our focus shouldn’t be to sort of funnel millions of youths onto farms, because as we adopt more modern technologies and improve productivity, there will be fewer labour opportunities directly on the farm. But in the agro allied sector, meaning the economic sectors allied through agriculture, there will be millions, millions of more jobs, or the potential is there to create millions of more jobs.

Kirti Manian (14:48): Which brings me to climate smart agriculture. You have touched upon this briefly as well because you talked about your involvement in the formulation of the Global Alliance For Climate-Smart Agriculture right. So, there is an emphasis not simply on sustainable agriculture, but also on increasing agricultural productivity. And climate change is really making the situation worse. You have unpredictability, you have drought and now locusts, good lord.
Debisi Araba (15:12): Yeah.

Kirti Manian (15:12): I think the last thing anyone expected to hear about in 2020 on top of everything else was locusts, right. Now, it sounds simplistic when I say it, but would tech and data kind of resolve this issue? And what steps kind of need to be taken so that agriculture as a sector doesn’t suffer with the effects of climate change in the future?

Debisi Araba (15:31): Right, that’s a really tough one, yes. Again, sort of another part of my life, I was one of the, amongst the team that helped design, develop and found the Global Alliance For Climate-Smart Agriculture. This was launched during the climate week during the U.N general assembly in 2014 I believe.

Now on climate change, I have to come back to it. Climate change is an existential threat not just to the agriculture sector, but to mankind. So, in addition to figuring out how we ensure that we continue to grow food or produce food in a way that meets our needs as a growing population across the world, we also need to ensure that we are keeping the environment in a way that is conducive for mankind to thrive on the planet.

So, speaking specifically about the agriculture sector, a lot of research is going into building resilience into not just the production capacity, but also the wider food systems. So, I’ll give you examples of where research or investments are going into research. Investments are going into breeding more resilient crop varieties, creating more animal breeds that are more tolerant with higher productivity. One of the big investments have gone into staple crops like maize for drought tolerance, rice for flood tolerance and drought tolerance, beans for heat tolerance.

Of course, again, when we talk about climate change for the agricultural sector, you can think about it in, along two dimensions. You can think about the temperature variability, but also precipitation variability. So, you are either having too few volumes of rainfall or too much rainfall which can lead to flooding, or you get the temperature too cold or too hot for crops to thrive right.

So, and of course, there is then the second order effect of climate change because that then creates a breeding ground depending on the climate conditions that are changing. It’s then a conducive environment for new pests and diseases to thrive. So, pests and diseases that previously wouldn’t have thrived in any particular area would then thrive because the climate variables are changing and becoming more conducive for them to proliferate and spread.

So, a lot of research is going on, it’s a moving target because climate isn’t something we can control now. The best we can do in our understanding as bodies of scientists is to ensure that we reduce the contributing factors, right? So, we have the two-degree initiative looking at capping the global temperature increase by no more than two degrees, and so, looking at what investments we need to put downstream to ensure that we are not exacerbating or accelerating the pace of climate change.

Beyond the production sphere of agriculture and food systems in, say in distribution and processing, we are investing in improving logistics, transportation, and cold storage. One example is of course solar powered off grid storage systems. There is a startup in Nigeria called Cold Hubs.

Kirti Manian (18:44): Yeah.

Debisi Araba (18:45): And I know there are a few other startups around the world focused on similar business models. But I think the idea is basing your business decisions on science-based innovations. And so, a lot of investments are going into breeding crops for resilience, investing in technologies that will reduce post-harvest loss, so increasing how much food we produce, increasing productivity, and also improving global supply chains.

So, global chains, some people might call it glocal, how to shorten the chain. Sometimes you have food produced hundreds or thousands of miles away and consumed around the world. I am a big advocate for a globalized agriculture economy, but I am also equally a big advocate for local economies to increase and maximize agriculture productivity locally. So, both are not in competition with each other. I think there is so much more we can do to improve productivity.

So, in Africa, a lot of investments going on in creating that whole public sector enabled, private sector led process of agriculture transformation to ensure that we maximize the dividends of agriculture & food systems on the continent.

Kirti Manian (20:00): All of this sounds really amazing, specifically like for me as somebody who is on the periphery and learning more about this and what is actually happening. Because you are typically reading news reports right and they always report negative. So, if you hear something like this is happening, it really gives you hope that there is things that are going to happen, and for the generations that are going to come, they are going to benefit from what is happening right now. That sounds really, really great.

Can you talk about your role as a member of the Malabo Montpellier panel of experts, what purpose does the panel serve?

Debisi Araba (20:34): Okay, thank you, and that’s, I suppose that’s another hat I wear. I am a member of the Malabo Montpellier panel. It’s a group of, I think there are seventeen of us, leading experts drawn across Africa, I think African and European experts in the fields of agriculture, ecology, nutrition, public policy and global development. We focus on aggregating and curating evidence to influence policy and decision making for the public sector and private sector in Africa. And so, it’s our vision to ensure that we accelerate the achievement of agriculture transformation through the curation, dissemination of knowledge products.

We host two forums each year, in June and in December where we engage with the highest levels of governments across the continent to showcase briefs that are thematically aligned on various aspects necessary for agriculture transformation.
Kirti Manian (21:36): Thanks so much for that. I happened to read about the concept of hidden hunger. Now, I can afford to say concept, but for many people this is a grim reality right? For those of you who don’t know, hidden hunger is, one, caused not by lack of food, but by food that lacks essential micronutrients necessary for growth and development. So, in your mind, what steps need to be taken to detect and then overcome the problem?

Debisi Araba (22:01): Yeah, thank you very much. So, hidden hunger, yes, let’s call it micronutrient deficiency. So, when you eat, when you consume food, you have your macronutrients like carbs, proteins, fats and oils, and you have the micronutrients like zinc, iron, iodine and vitamin A for example. Around the world, it’s not just an African challenge, it’s a global challenge. But I would say let’s take iodine for example. I think worldwide about two billion people are iodine deficient.

And one of the most consequential public policy initiatives to address this came in 1990 during the World Summit on Children where a goal is set to eliminate iodine deficiency by 2010. And at the time, about 25% of our households consumed iodized salt. This was a practice that at least was quite popular in Switzerland before it came to the United States in the 1920s and became backed by a law in quite a few countries, Philippines, Argentina for example.

Now, most people use salt in cooking, right. So, from a public policy perspective, this was an externality, the iodine deficiency and of course the medical toll that would take not just on families but on the community where people were deficient of iodine. But when the governments decided around the world to work with the private sector to fortify salt, what that meant was you created a low barrier entry for people to improve their iodine uptake levels.

Now, that’s an idea that we have taken into other aspects of agriculture and food systems. So, another idea, brilliant idea that was coined by a scientist whom I worked with in my former place of employment called Steve Beebe, and he came up with the term biofortification. Now biofortification is a means of naturally increasing the micronutrient levels of staple crops. The CGIAR, the global consortium and international agricultural research has a big program focussed on fortifying quite a few staple crops with micronutrients. To date I believe about two hundred and ninety varieties of twelve staple food crops have been released and tested in over sixty countries. Thanks to an army of scientists who are working on breeding these crops.

So, an example of this is the high zinc maize, the pro vitamin A cassava, so, it’s the yellow cassava. And these are ways of transforming the lives of people because micronutrient deficiency unfortunately, when you look at the food, you may not see the nutrients, but you can certainly see the impact of micronutrient deficiency. Stunting for example, yes, you see physically stunted people, but what you don’t see is the impact on cognitive function. So, some people would say you know stunted, people are physically stunted, they are also mentally stunted. Stunted people, stunted futures and stunted economies. And so, there is that sort of knock-on effect. And so, we are trying to replace where possible, staple foods with biofortified alternatives. And this has achieved success and we will continue to scale this across Africa and around the world.
Debisi Araba (26:02): Yeah, thank you. So, we came up with the theme for this year’s summit last year incidentally even before the pandemic hit. But the theme is prescient and aligned or so meaningful to what we are going through as a global body of humans today. The theme of the summit is ‘Feed the Cities, Grow the Continent’, leveraging urban food markets to achieve sustainable food systems in Africa.

And what we are trying to do over the course of four days from the 8th to the 11th of September is have conversations aligned to resilience, nutrition and health, markets and trade, and of course food systems. We feel that cities play a leading role in influencing and shaping agriculture systems not just in Africa, but around the world. And we want to particularly focus and lens on these cities to see how they can be best positioned as engines of growth. Of course, we know that the rate of urbanization continues to increase across the continent. So, we are seeing the emergence of even more cities.

Now what do we need to do as a global community, to plan ahead and anticipate the future, and don’t let the future surprise us so to speak. So, how do we ensure that Africa's future is secure with people having access to affordable, accessible, healthy, safe, nutritious food, but also Africa not just being able to feed itself, but feeding the rest of the world?

Africa really is and should be the world’s food basket. Most of the arable land left in the world, untapped arable land is in Africa. But even as we look at innovations and technology, we have seen some technologies that have moved us or decoupled agricultural food production away from the soil, away from the land. Africa is the biggest and you know the fastest growing continent. So, we need to make agriculture and food systems work on the continent. And so, we picked the focus on cities specifically to ensure that we could use cities as the levers for growth and transformation. And of course, with COVID 19 hitting us, we have all seen the impact of the restrictions of movement on people in urban areas. At least if you were in a rural area and you were growing your own food, then it wouldn’t be much of a challenge to access food. But if you are in an urban area and you are restricted to your house or your home, then you realize really quickly how disconnected urban spaces are from food systems, and so, how do we improve that, and how do we ensure that the public policy space can support the private entrepreneurs.

We have an army of brilliant, smart people working on business ideas, technologies across the continent to ensure that we can feed ourselves and feed the rest of the world. But we really need all these groups of people to work together. We need civil society organizations, we need governments, we need entrepreneurs, we need donor development partners to all work together because we share a common goal and common purpose. So, the AGRF is creating the enabling environment or a platform for all these communities to come together and work together for a common purpose.

Kirti Manian (29:16): I want to talk about women & agri businesses in Africa. So, one stat I happened to read was in sub Saharan Africa, women constituted the highest average agriculture labour force participation within the world.

Debisi Araba (29:28): Yeah.
Kirti Manian (29:29): And this is more than 50% in many countries especially in west Africa according to FAO. Do you think more needs to be done to empower women to get out there and lead businesses, and is the organization also playing a role in this?

Debisi Araba (29:44): Oh yes. So, one of the thematic platforms that we have within the AGRF is women and agriculture thematic platform where we focus specifically on how we create the space for women led entrepreneurship opportunities across the continent.
One of our partners, the African Development Bank, set up the Affirmative Finance Action for Women in Africa. The acronym is AFAWA.

Kirti Manian (30:08): Right.

Debisi Araba (30:09): And AFAWAis looking to bridge the forty-two billion financing gap for African women across different value chains including I think about fifteen billion dollars in agriculture alone. So, women face a lot of challenges, that’s been documented. It’s access to finance, the capacity of finance institutions to price their risks and understand their clients and know their customers. It’s creating that enabling business environment, the legal and regulatory frameworks that sometimes hamper women's full participation in private entrepreneurship. So, through AGRF we bring all these partners together to ensure that we enable women entrepreneurs to thrive.

Kirti Manian (30:56): Super. [laughs] And that’s a short answer for what you are doing, but I think something about gender empowerment really is such an important thing because in India we used to have this old saying you know, you educate a girl child, then that’s all you needed. And it’s the same principle where you empower women, and then everything around in the community thrives because women are so focused on…

Debisi Araba (31:19): That’s right.

Kirti Manian (31:20): Right, and I know it’s very clichéd at some level, but I really, really believe in that.

Debisi Araba (31:26): Yes, it might be cliché but I don’t think it’s been proven wrong, not once where if you educate a woman, you educate the world. Not once has that been proven wrong. And within the AGRF we also have our agri finance and SME investment and thematic problem where we have an agribusiness deal room focused exclusively on SMEs. That’s another challenge, so, sort of allied to this, why the context of women’s access to finance and entrepreneurship opportunities is a specific focus on SMEs.

SMEs form the backbone of economic transformation across the continent, and quite literally around the world. And so, within the agribusiness deal room what we are doing is working directly with governments as a broker of bringing on ideas. So, we have people who propose agri business opportunities and then we connect them to finance. And we are doing more of that and we intend to certainly focus more on women through the women and agriculture thematic platform of the AGRF.
Kirti Manian (32:27): It sounds like a wonderful initiative. So, you have talked about government quite a lot, you talked about research and policy. So, what role does politics and policy play in this whole scenario, and how much more does the government need to do? And I am saying government, where I mean governments really across the continent, need to do to help the organization and others like you?

Debisi Araba (32:51): Yes. So, everything we do that involves human interaction is political, right. So, politics is the art of persuasion, ultimately, it’s the art of persuasion. So, everything that we do ultimately we need human beings to make a decision, whether you want entrepreneurs to take risks and come up with new business ideas in agriculture, or you want to influence public policies for governments to create the enabling environment either to support entrepreneurs to thrive or for governments to create programs to support people through social interventions. Either way, you are ultimately coming down to persuading people to make decisions.

Kirti Manian (33:31): Yeah.

Debisi Araba (33:31): So, I am of the evidence-based school, and I am a scientist. And so, throughout my career, I have worked sort of straddling the divide between science and communication, and I think both really need to be married. Scientists need to be better communicators, and those in communication need to understand science. And that’s politics. We need scientists to be more political, and we need our politicians to be more scientific. We do that every day, I think that’s ultimately why we are trying to bring everybody under the same umbrella, because the further we can get people to interact and understand the nuances of how everyone else works, the easier we can create these opportunities for collaboration.

Kirti Manian (34:19): I think this theme of scientists becoming better communicators is something that I have heard throughout in the last 3+ episodes right. It’s just about getting somebody who is in a position of power to understand what the implications are of the decisions that they are going to be taking.

Debisi Araba (34:34): Yeah.

Kirti Manian (34:35): And I think the reverse also what you mentioned about politicians saying that we understand, and then having that scientific evidence as backup, it plays such an important role, and especially because they are affecting futures, right. You are taking governmental decisions which means you are affecting treaties of people just like you and me. We are living our lives, but we are being affected by those decisions. So, it’s a very, very valid point that you are making.
Kirti Manian (35:00):You discussed COVID quite a bit, but I liked this line you said in a recent interview. You said ‘Africa will not wilt in the phase of this pandemic’, and that really struck something in me, it really gave me hope. And you talked briefly about COVID affecting food security. Can you tell us a little bit more about what steps kind of need to be taken to prevent the situation from getting worse? So, what happens when the next, hopefully never pandemic comes along?

Debisi Araba (35:26): Yes, well, I am confident that Africa will not wilt the phase of the pandemic. And that’s because, I mean, I base my faith in the fact that I know people are working day and night to ensure that this doesn’t happen.
Now, we have a lot of brilliant people working in the public sector, working in research, working in private entrepreneurship. So, I’ll give you an example of what we are doing specifically about COVID 19.

Kirti Manian (35:54): Yes please.

Debisi Araba (35:55): So, in Kenya, AGRA has setup a war, a COVID-19 war room to support the government of Kenya to aggregate information, so, ensuring that the government has near real time information to make improved decisions, but also improving the efficiency of deploying resources. So, what’s the best way to spend your money now and how do we invest, which value chains should we focus on, what technologies do we deploy, at what points of the value chain would we support, where, how, why. It’s really comprehensively about improving decision making.
So, in Kenya, that’s happening through the support of partners funded by the partners within the Alliance for Green Revolution in Africa, AGRA.
But also, across the continent you have seen the private sector rise up in ways that have surprised me. In Nigeria for example where we don’t have any major social safety net program, we saw the emergence of a private sector led food distribution program called And what they did was, they set up a platform where people could contribute funds, but then working with the major FMCGs, fast moving consumer goods companies to purchase. So, you are leveraging market systems. So, you are not creating competition with existing market systems, you are leveraging market systems and optimizing them to ensure that you can improve the distribution channels of food.
Nigeria of course is also trying to improve it’s digital identification system which is welcome, because I think the easier it is to know where people are, the easier it is to target people as well. Now in Kenya, one of the brilliant things that the government did was suspend the fees, transaction fees for mobile money below one thousand shillings. And what that did was create the incentive for people to do more transactions at that level. And so, when you have a slowing down of productivity, what you don’t want to do is then force people to spend less. I mean yes, you don’t want people to go broke, but you don’t want to create a disincentive so to speak for people not to carry on with economic activities.
And so, there are all these creative ideas that are coming out and emerging. And I think the more we can share…

Kirti Manian (38:19): Yeah.

Debisi Araba (38:20): They say the internet has made the world a global village now. The more we can share these ideas, other parts of the continent will lean on and learn from each other and create this race to the top. So, I am excited about the prospects for Africa.
Kirti Manian (38:33):Which brings me perfectly into my next question, and I hope it’s not too controversial. But I would love to hear from you about looking towards Africa. You already gave me a couple of examples for innovation in sectors from agriculture to technology. Now, as a globalized world, we always kind of focus on the West to get answers to our questions. What needs to change in order for the world to see Africa for the powerhouse that it is or could become?

Debisi Araba (39:00): That’s an interesting question. Maybe nothing needs to change. I don’t think it’s any African or Africa in an abstract sense needs to do anything to get people to change their opinion of the continent. Africa will continue to thrive; Africa will continue on its journey to thrive. Yes, there are lots of challenges across the continent, but you can begin to see the green shoots of innovation that just blows you away. We are seeing opportunities now.
When I talk to people about mobile money, I know it’s an over egged example, but the prospects of mobile money, a digital economy is just mind boggling. So, I have lived in Nairobi for four years and I could tell you that since the start of this year, I haven’t held a single physical note of cash in my hand.

Kirti Manian (39:51): [laughs] Wow!

Debisi Araba (39:51): All my transactions have been on my mobile phone. And I don’t think any other country around the world can claim to be this integrated with the mobile money system. Now, that’s just one example and that’s the M-Pesa mobile money system in Kenya. Now, I talked about the innovations that we have seen with off grid, cold storage. What we are going to see I would say in the coming years in Africa will be innovations in off grid power, and that is going to be a game changer.

So, I don’t think the future of Africa is in the legacy grid, high cost, billion, multi billion-dollar energy producing systems. The future is really an off grid mini grid systems that will be proliferating all parts of the continent in rural areas, urban areas. Once people have access to power, then you open up the doors of I would say immense possibility. So, let’s keep an eye out for that. We already have that vibrant entrepreneurial spirit across the continent. This is the Africa that produced Elon Musk, I mean as much as the United States would like to claim him.

Kirti Manian (41:01): [laughs]

Debisi Araba (41:02): Elon Musk is African and we will continue to claim him. But the Africans in Africa are investing in creating new ways of logistics, transportation. I mean look at start-ups such as Kobo 360 and Lori Systems that are improving the efficiency of logistics and transportation. So, we have the foundational technologies that we will need to overcome, and once we overcome those, the acceleration is going to be profound. But I would say watch out for innovations and power, that’s the big game changer coming up.

Kirti Manian (41:35): We will, we definitely will. So, my last question really to you is, and I don’t know whether you want to aim this at individuals or governments or where you want to do this, but what would your call of action be? You have already described climate change as an existential threat to all of humanity. So, what would you say as a call of action, what would you say to our listeners?

Debisi Araba (41:57): Thank you very much. I would say two words, have faith. Because for me, my career so far has been one of faith. I have achieved the things I have because I had faith. And the way I see faith is, it’s the substance of things hoped for, and it’s the evidence of things not seen. But you see, once you have faith, that can’t be taken away from you. Faith gives you the opportunity and the ability to create the impossible, to create the unknown, to create what doesn’t exist and bring your imagination to life and to reality. So, that for me would be the charge to everyone. And I think it doesn’t matter who you are, whether you are working in the public sector, research, academia, entrepreneurship, civil society. Wherever you are, whatever sector of society you are, you can make a difference, but you need to have faith.

Kirti Manian (42:49): Thank you so much for your fabulous insights Debisi. I think all our listeners and me included definitely have learnt so much about what is happening within agriculture in Africa, and so much more. Thank you so much for your time, we really appreciate it.

Debisi Araba (43:03): My pleasure, thank you very much.



About the speaker

Kirti Manian

Kirti is's Community Manager, and oversees our mentor community, fellow and alumni engagement, and's podcast "Solve #ClimateChange".

Kirti is's Community Manager, and oversees our mentor community, fellow and alumni engagement, and's podcast "Solve #ClimateChange".

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