Visitors stumbling into Abidjan’s cavernous Palais des Congrès on the evening of 28th May would be forgiven for thinking they’d arrived at a concert for a chart-topping Ivorian act.
But amid cascades of applause, a sea of iPhones, and the camera flashes of an eager press pack, a more unlikely star emerged: a wonkish Nigerian with a penchant for bow ties and a passion for agricultural policy.
As he strode confidently to the lectern and delivered a speech in both French and English, the adulatory reception greeting Akinwumi Adesina’s crowning as president of the African Development Bank (AfDB) made his comprehensive final round victory over Cabo Verde’s Cristina Duarte and Chad’s Kordjé Bedoumra look like a foregone conclusion.
But the story of the 55-year-old’s accession stretches beyond a stuffy week of lobbying in Abidjan’s Sofitel hotel complex, encompassing 25 years of agricultural experience, stints in over a dozen African countries, and relationships with some of Nigeria’s most influential figures.
Born to a farmer in Ogun State, Adesina’s long march to become Africa’s top development banker began when he became a humble agricultural economics undergraduate at Nigeria’s University of Ife.
After subsequent studies in the US, his selection for a post-doctoral fellowship at the Rockefeller Foundation in the late 1980s helped launch the young Adesina to prominence, firing up a relationship with the New York organisation that resulted in a decade of leadership roles from the late 1990s and a focus on food security. Moving with ease through the rarefied world of US development institutions, Adesina’s expertise and leadership at the Foundation marked him as an ideal vice-presidential candidate at the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), a multibillion-dollar joint initiative between the Rockefeller and Bill & Melinda Gates Foundations.
With a professed goal of boosting production to unleash the power of smallholder farmers, AGRA launched programmes focusing on boosting soil fertility, seed availability, and improving market access for smallholder farmers.
It was the latter of these approaches that most excited Adesina’s attention, helping to forge a personal ideology that continues to revolve around a commercial view of the agricultural sector. Speaking to WorldFolio in 2012, Adesina spelled out a philosophy that led him to support the emergence of more agricultural millionaires and billionaires on the continent.
“The key for successful reform is to turn agriculture into a business that makes money, with a focus on investment, as opposed to aid and development. We need to move towards focusing on particular value chains in which we have a traditional comparative advantage.”
Having avoided the murky swamp of Nigerian politics – a shrewd move during the tumultuous 1980s and 1990s – Adesina was selected to bring this approach to an agricultural ministry desperate for reform.
Overshadowed by the nation’s dependence on oil, the agriculture sector had been allowed to lag at growth of just 3.7% in 2007, compared to real annual GDP growth of 8.8% from 2000 to 2007, according to the International Food Policy Research Institute.
Incoming President Goodluck Jonathan – who had never previously met Adesina – tempted his compatriot to return home in 2010 to deploy his experience on home soil.
According to Arunma Oteh, a former-vice president of the African Development Bank who provided support to Adesina’s AfDB campaign, that gamble paid spectacular dividends for the country’s productivity.
“In my view we haven’t seen the kind of progress in previous years that we’ve seen on agriculture [under Adesina]. And that is a whole change of mindset and some very concrete results on the ground including reducing the import bill, building a value chain for rice, for cassava – the whole focus is not just on production but industrialisation.”
Innovative policies such as the Growth Enhancement Support Scheme, which gives farmers access to inputs via mobile technology, have been credited with sparking an agricultural renaissance and reducing the state’s role in crucial supply industries.
Adesina’s supporters point to government figures which suggest that his term in office has coincided with a food production boost of 21m metric tons.
According to Henri-Bernard Solignac-Lecomte, head of the Africa team at the OECD Development Centre, Adesina’s success in overhauling a sector that is critical to Africa’s future makes him an ideal candidate to lead the AfDB.
“It’s essential to understand the very unique features of Africa’s structural transformation challenge in that relations between rural and urban are going to be very different – a very unique pattern that evades anything we’ve learned from other experiences. So having someone who has hands-on experience of reforming such a complex sector in such an impossible country like Nigeria is, I think, a really good sign for the bank as a whole.”
In a Goodluck Jonathan administration renowned neither for government efficiency nor strong policy direction, Adesina’s assured grasp of his ministry won friends at home and abroad. And seeking to capitalise on the popularity of their rising star – and aware that it would take a candidate of special resonance to become Nigeria’s first AfDB head – Jonathan organised a campaign team, coordinated by his Finance Minister, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, to promote Adesina’s candidacy for president of the bank.
Dozie Okpalaobieri, a special advisor in the Finance Ministry who was heavily involved in the campaign, says the team soon set about organising meetings with key decision makers in Africa and beyond. “We talked to different countries at every opportunity, for example at the World Bank spring meeting there were opportunities to talk to people and for candidates to meet different folks. There were internal efforts in Africa to talk to heads of state and finance ministers, and other opportunities at the African Union to do the same. So it was a multi-pronged approach.”
The well-travelled Adesina, backed up by a team of around 30 in Nigeria and beyond, undertook many trips to countries in a bid to win over stakeholders and secure crucial votes, according to Okpalaobieri. But having secured a vital nomination from Ghana, seconded by Uganda, Adesina’s team had to reassure smaller countries concerned by Nigeria’s potential dominance of the AfDB.
“When a large country – Nigeria is the largest shareholder of the AfDB – presents a candidate, my personal view is that people worry as to what it means,” says Arunma Oteh.
However, by the time the Board of Governors returned to the Bank’s spiritual home of Abidjan for their annual meeting in late May, Adesina’s team, boosted by an endorsement from incoming president Muhammadu Buhari, were confident that enough support had been secured to propel their man to the top job.
That confidence was borne out by a final round vote, which saw Adesina win with 60.5% of the regional vote and 58.1% of the total vote.
Only hours after the celebrations prompted by his thumping victory in Abidjan, Adesina boarded an early morning plane to Abuja for the inauguration of President Buhari. But if the two leaders were permitted a day to enjoy Nigeria’s recent successes, there was also an acknowledgement that much work lies ahead.
For Adesina, that means turning his extensive experience into workable development policies. Oteh believes that Adesina is not short of ideas as he seeks to address the Bank’s range of ongoing challenges – such as slow disbursement of loans, issues around decentralisation, and working out how to maximise on partnerships – as well as build on his predecessor Donald Kaberuka’s impressive legacy.
“[Adesina] understands finance, understands the private sector, infrastructure and agriculture. He’s got a very holistic eco-system approach to business,” says Oteh. “The Bank needs execution and needs to scale up. He’s run the Ministry of Agriculture as an agency that has probably about 7,000 employees if you take the core ministry and agencies – so the experience in Nigeria prepares him adequately for this role.”
OECD’S Solignac-Lecomte also hopes Adesina will continue Kaberuka’s bid to make the AfDB a knowledge bank, while focusing on a narrative of inclusive growth.
“He’s talked a lot about inclusive growth, and that’s one way of saying that structural transformation needs to be accelerated. There needs to be growth of a different nature. I guess that’s what he’s saying so on the face of it he’s going in the right direction.”
Given his extensive experience and fervour for agricultural development, there is plenty of hope that Adesina will be able to step adequately into Kaberuka’s shoes. And if a bow-tie-wearing development banker can prompt a rock-star welcome at the end of a week-long conference, there is a feeling that anything is possible.