“Grow Africa, your immense contribution to African agriculture is exemplary.”
Akin Adesina, Nigeria’s Minister of Agriculture
Grow Africa has received some remarkable and enthusiastic plaudits. Yet what is it about it that has enabled it to rapidly deliver change at scale, where so many others have failed?
Grow Africa can claim some big numbers. In May 2014, they announced that, during 2013, the partnership’s private sector commitments to invest in African agriculture doubled to a total of $7.2 billion. Of which $970 million was already invested, creating 33,000 new jobs and reaching 2.6 million smallholder farmers across 10 countries. At Grow Africa’s Investment Forum, leaders, including five Heads of State heralded this as remarkable progress for an initiative that is barely 2 years old. Raj Shah, head of USAID, stated that Grow Africa has shown that “success at scale is now possible. This effort can effectively end poverty and hunger in Africa.” Amena Mohamed, the UN Secretary General’s Special Advisor for post-2015 MDG planning, saw Grow Africa as a model to replicate to ensure that the vision for next MDGs could rapidly translate in to action, in a way that traditional development approaches have not proven able.
For Wasafiri, which has played an instrumental role in conceiving and managing Grow Africa, these accolades are clearly affirming and gratifying. Nonetheless, such unbridled enthusiasm begs the questions “What has made Grow Africa such a success?” and “Why is its approach not adopted more widely to deliver change on other systemic challenges?”
A recent article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review entitled “Shaping Global Partnerships for a Post-2015 World” examined Grow Africa alongside five other pioneering cross-sector initiatives to ask how to unlock collective impact at a global scale. It concluded, “The most important condition is establishing a backbone structure that acts as the glue, holding the partners together and ensuring that the other four conditions are in place. The backbone provides strategic coherence around the common agenda, establishes shared measurement and learning systems, supports the mutually reinforcing activities of the different partners, and facilitates continuous communication.”
While Grow Africa certainly embodies all those features, I believe the story of its success is more complex. Or rather, I think there are underlying aspects of the global political economy that usually subvert the emergence of such elements when people attempt to collectively tackle change at scale.
Alignment of interests
Grow Africa is blessed by emerging at a moment of alignment for political, commercial and social interests. The 2008 food crisis changed the underlying economics of agriculture. The world realized that Africa must become a global food basket if we are going to feed 9 billion by 2050, while accommodating changing consumption habits, and linking food to energy through bio-fuels. Enlightened businesses – small and large – realized that African agriculture was going to grow, and they had a strong commercial interest in being in the vanguard. Africa’s politicians serve citizens who are primarily rural, and half of whom are under 20. Their political imperative is to increase rural incomes and generate jobs, or risk wide-scale unrest and disaffection. And for development aficionados, agriculture represents the best opportunity to reduce poverty and hunger. Everyone from smallholders to multinationals, and from African Heads of State to G8 Development Ministers, could rally behind Grow Africa’s common agenda of accelerating investment for sustainable agricultural growth. The only sustained dissonance has come from a few Western-based, ideologically-driven voices who fundamentally distrust the private sector.
Few other global issues currently benefit from such alignment. Climate change is riven with competing interests and public health issues struggle to attract strong commercial engagement. However, the same would have been said about African agriculture a decade ago. Perhaps part of the secret is sniffing out the right historical moment when interests align, and then to forge global partnerships to drive change at scale as fast as possible while the political window of opportunity lasts.
Coalition of the willing
Grow Africa is also unusual in welcoming all parties, without finding itself paralysed by the outcome. Many multi-stakeholder initiatives end up crippled by one of two effects. Firstly their governance often demands consensus, which means they become hostage to minority interests. For example, whilst a reasonable number of governments and actors seemed willing to act on climate change, negotiations, in attempting to accommodate everyone’s demands, have either ended up in a stalemate or conceding to the lowest common denominator. Secondly, successful initiatives are asked to layer on issue after issue, until their mandate is too diffuse and complex to meaningfully deliver anything. CAADP (Africa’s overarching plan for agriculture) is at risk of this as it is expected to address issues as varied as nutrition, climate change, job creation, regional trade, tertiary education, natural resource management.
So far, Grow Africa has evaded these pitfalls. Its clear focus on the commercial and development opportunity presented by agricultural investment, has allowed it to welcome all parties who are committed to advancing the agenda – a coalition of the willing. Co-convened by AUC, NEPAD and the World Economic Forum, but serving a wide range of stakeholders from Farmers Organisations to Multi-nationals to donors, it has created a space in which minority voices are heard, but that majority interests then drive action.
The World Economic Forum’s role in this cannot be underestimated. Most influential development actors are effectively civil service in culture – whether governments, African institutions, donors, or multilaterals. Too often their accountability pressures are to avoid obvious failure, rather than to deliver results at scale – leading to an aversion to taking risks, a focus on appeasing all interests, and a default towards extending timelines rather than making swift decisions. The World Economic Forum brings a refreshing private sector orientation that, whilst very protective of reputation, is ultimately dependent on showing it can deliver.