I recently returned from the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) annual Africa meeting in Cape Town. I attended to support a high-level meeting focussed on scaling-up public-private initiatives that will help smallholders become more commercially successful. The meeting was attended by Presidents and Ministers from governments across Africa; heads of international agencies such USAID, IFAD and the African Development Bank; business leaders from mullti-nationals such as Pepsico, Yara, Kraft and Swiss Re; and, unlikely as it may seem, me! How did I find myself the smallest fish in a pond full of very big ones? This happened through the convergence of some long-term personal and strategic goals.

A few years ago, I was asked by the UK’s Department for International Development to consider how the private sector could be engaged in support of agricultural development. I ended up recommending to DFID that they supported country-level facilitation of public-private partnerships to integrate smallholders in to commercially viable markets. However as part of a stretched team, and with an impending change of government, there was no political impetus and, regardless how welcome my suggestions were, they led to no consequential action.

However, developing my report for DFID gave me the excuse to knock on the door at WEF and establish some relationships. I maintained these, and in the meantime established myself in a key role coordinating the engagement of Development Partners for CAADP – a pan-African movement to boost agricultural production and thereby address poverty and hunger. This year CAADP agreed that it was a top priority to leverage the technical, financial and human resources of the private sector. At the same time, I was aware that, driven by their multinational membership, WEF had pioneered a couple of promising public-private partnerships in Tanzania and Mozambique, and was looking to scale-up their efforts. WEF’s limiting factor was finding countries where there was strong political leadership in place that would want to work on such initiatives. Earlier this year I was able to connect the effort by WEF and the effort by CAADP by introducing key people to each other.

The event at WEF Africa was the result of bringing together the public-sector-led CAADP efforts, and the private-sector-led WEF efforts. This was the right political moment and the result is remarkable. Top-level political commitment was secured from across sectors for a scaling up of initiatives across Africa. In the next year we expect to see new partnerships launched in 6 countries. The Southern Agricultural Growth Corridor of Tanzania provides a practical example of one of these. In this key farming region, businesses are establishing new hubs through which to work with small-scale farmers, providing inputs such as fertiliser or seeds, establishing storage facilities, processing commodities, and finding markets for products. The government is investing in infrastructure such as roads, rail and irrigation. Development Partners are providing catalytic finance and capacity development. By acting together everyone is establishing the confidence required to establish functioning markets. These initiatives translate a great deal of talk by policy-makers in to action. The involvement of the private sector will only last if they see results, and as such this creates a tangible sense of hustle and focus that is often absent from development processes.

I played an enabling role at the WEF event in Cape Town –  writing briefing notes for participants, helping facilitate a roundtable discussion with the Rwandan Minister of Agriculture, writing a follow-up report and participating in the working group that will take the outcomes forward. The achievement I am really proud of was to maintain a long-term strategic focus on the value of public-private partnership for agricultural development, building relationships in that space, and then, when the political moment was finally right, I was able to make some key connections so that others with much greater power and influence could multiply their impact by working together.