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2017 World Food Prize Goes to African Development Bank President

The president of the African Development Bank, Akinwumi Adesina, is the 2017 winner of the $250,000 World Food Prize for two decades of work expanding food production in the continent through policy reforms, financial innovation and modern farming practices, announced the  Iowa foundation that sponsors the prize, known as the Nobel of food and agriculture.

“Adesina has been at the forefront of galvanizing public will to transform African agriculture through initiatives to expand agricultural production, thwart corruption in the Nigerian fertilizer industry and exponentially increase the availability of credit for smallholder farmers across the African continent,” said the World Food Prize Foundation, describing Adesina’s career at the Rockefeller Foundation, the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), and as Nigeria’s agriculture minister.

The World Food Prize was created by Norman Borlaug, winner of the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize. Known as the father of the “green revolution,” Borlaug bred higher-yielding, disease-resistant dwarf varieties of wheat that helped prevent famine in Asia in the 1960s as the world population boomed after World War II.

Adesina has been described as the Borlaug of Africa, said the Food Prize Foundation, because he promoted the use of improved seeds and fertilizer, larger investment in agriculture and greater access for farmers to credit. “Adesina came to strongly believe that unless fertilizer use gained traction in African countries on a wide scale, the farmers in those countries would never see an improvement in yields nor in their livelihoods,” said the prize foundation.

Agriculture is a leading employer in many African countries and is seen as a springboard for economic growth. In 2006, Adesina was the lead organizer the African Fertilizer Summit, which led to creation of AGRA. Kenneth Quinn, president of the Food Prize Foundation, said the fertilizer summit catalyzed the political will to bring the Green Revolution to the continent.

While high-yielding crops are the hallmark of the Green Revolution, fertilizer and pesticides are important components. There have been backlashes against the package as unduly expensive for small farmers and environmentally damaging. Some critics say organic and low-input farming are better suited to African conditions. Proponents say low grain yields lock farmers in poverty and jeopardize the food supply. With more careful use of fertilizer and water and integrated pest management, yields can rise while water and chemical use declines, they say.

Kenneth Quinn, president of the food prize foundation, announced the selection of Adesina during a ceremony at the USDA headquarters. Adesina, who did not attend the announcement, is the sixth African laureate.

A native of Nigeria, Adesina has been president of the African Development Bank since 2015 and is the first person with an agricultural background to head a regional development bank. Told by his father that education was a “leveler” and a way out of poverty, Adesina was a stand-out scholar and earned a doctorate in agricultural economics at Purdue. 

After Purdue, he worked for 10 years in the network of international agricultural research centers known as CGIAR and helped launch new rice varieties in Nigeria that made the country self-sufficient in the staple grain. As a Rockefeller Foundation official based in Zimbabwe, Adesina initiated the agro-dealer concept that recruited small village shopkeepers to become seed and fertilizer dealers who also advised farmers on how to improve yields. 

The World Food Prize will be awarded formally “for improving the quality, quantity or availability of food in the world,” on Oct 19 during a week-long symposium on global food issues in Des Moines. The symposium coincides with World Food Day, observed annually on October 16.

“We all have a challenge. Dr Adesina knows our work is not done,” said Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, pointing to estimates the world population, now 7.6 billion, will zoom to 8.6 billion in 2030 and 9.8 billion at mid-century.

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