World Food Prize laureate scores gains for African farmers

Akinwumi Adesina, then a future Nigerian minister of agriculture, was talking one day with the late agronomist and humanitarian Norman Borlaug about an initiative to fight hunger in Africa. As they walked down New York’s Fifth Avenue, Borlaug asked Adesina if he liked to play soccer.

Yes, replied Adesina, an agricultural economist.

“Akin, go score some goals for African agriculture,” said Borlaug, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate.

He did, and fittingly, Adesina, now president of the African Development Bank, is the 2017 winner of the $250,000 World Food Prize that Borlaug established to honor leadership in feeding the hungry. It is often called “the Nobel Prize for food and agriculture.”

The award is going to a farm laborer’s grandson who grew up in a one-room house without electricity or plumbing. He earned a university degree in Nigeria and went on to earn master’s and Ph.D. degrees in agricultural economy at Purdue University, a land-grant university in Indiana.

A post-doctoral fellowship propelled his three-decade-long career finding ways to help farmers in Nigeria and across Africa increase their crop yields and livelihoods. He helped launch and served as vice president of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, which provided loans to tens of thousands of farmers and agribusinesses in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Ghana and Mozambique.

Then, as Nigerian minister of agriculture from 2011 to 2015, he introduced an “E-Wallet” system that provided subsidized vouchers to farmers over their mobile phones to buy seeds and fertilizer directly instead of through a corrupt fertilizer distribution system.

His policies are credited with expanding Nigeria’s food production by 21 million metric tons and attracting $5.6 billion in private-sector investments.

The World Food Prize will be presented on October 19 in Des Moines, Iowa, during the annual Norman Borlaug International Symposium on global agriculture that draws more than 1,000 participants from dozens of countries.

“As someone who grew out of poverty, I know that poverty is not pretty,” Adesina said in June upon learning he would win this year’s award. “My life mission is to lift up millions of people out of poverty, especially farmers in rural areas of Africa. We must give hope and turn agriculture into a business all across Africa to create wealth for African economies.”

Last year two African plant scientists and two U.S. economists shared the World Food Prize. Learn their stories.

Entrance and sign for Purdue University (© Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
Akinwumi Adesina studied agricultural economy at Indiana’s Purdue University. (© Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

Land-grant universities

As a Purdue University graduate, Akinwumi Adesina received degrees from one of the many land-grant universities in the United States.

Land-grant universities are schools that were established as a result of a gift, or ‘grant,’ of land or cash from the federal government to the states where they are located.

In 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed a law that changed agriculture and education, transforming America along the way. The bill directed land-grant universities to focus on the teaching of practical agriculture, science, military science and engineering (“without excluding … classical studies”) as a response to the industrial revolution and changes in society.

There is at least one land-grant institution in every state and territory of the U.S. They include some of America’s largest state universities. With a few exceptions, such as Cornell University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, land-grant colleges are public.

The faculty at land-grant universities include world-renowned agricultural scientists who often are deeply involved in projects to improve farming in developing countries. Since crop imports and exports are such an important part of the business of agriculture, today’s land-grant programs focus heavily on international curricula in training the next generation of U.S. farm experts and leaders.

Freelance writer Alex Gordon wrote this article.