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Why agribusiness is Africa’s biggest economic opportunity

HE Olusegun Obasanjo, former President of Nigeria, explains what the Africa Food Prize means to African youth, and why we need a renewed focus on sustainable practices

For some decades, a former President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria has promoted sustainable opportunities in infrastructure, power, agribusiness, tourism and natural resources. His Excellency Olusegun Obasanjo holds a number of progressive positions on investment. In particular, he seeks "to support Africa’s growth and develop its workforce" by facilitating and encouraging entrepreneurship. Amongst his current concerns is the African Entrepreneurship Programme (AEP), launched in 2015 with the former Nigerian president's support and with backing from Aliko Dangote, one of Africa’s most successful businessmen. Since its launch, AEP has supported African entrepreneurs as they have sought to realise investment objectives by affording them opportunities to connect with and appeal to financial stakeholders.

HE Obasanjo spoke recently to African Review about agribusiness, arguably his greatest passion - and about the Africa Food Prize, which acknowledges individuals and institutions for their efforts towards changing the perceptions of agriculture and agribusiness in Africa. He explained why farming needs more than money. It needs leadership. It needs structure. It needs enterprising individuals, and networks of support at various levels of society and economy.

HE Obasanjo stressed to African Review that he understands the farmers are struggling, that farmers are wrestling with the consequences of climate change, with the costs of production, and the obstacles in delivering produce to market. He knows that farmers can be forced to sell their produce at low prices, and often at the farm gate, before the products spoil, because roads are in states of disrepair or the cost of tractor fuel is prohibitive. However, he knows also that, when there is provision of opportunity, when farmers are given a wider range of seeds to plant, or a greater choice of fertilisers to use, or more agricultural markets to sell to, the potential for progress is massive, and the opportunity for "equitable, long-lasting growth across Africa" is a reality.

Sustainable, productive, and profitable
The key to continued progress in farming is innovation. Across Africa, this will continue to mean adoption of 'climate-smart' practices like planting drought-resistant seed varieties, participation in crop and livestock insurance programmes that compensate farmers when weather conditions deteriorate, and managing soil to improve water retention and prevent run-off and erosion. HE Obasanjo is most concerned that agricultural endeavours are geared to be sustainable, productive, and profitable, and he is keen to reinforce the message that "the continent is well-placed to provide innovative solutions".

The former President of Nigeria speaks with qualification and from experience. In conversation with African Review, he drew on his personal experience, as the son of a farmer in Nigeria's Ogun State - and in his current role as an Ogun State farmer himself. His insights, gained from years of experience in government and from experience working the land, informs his approach to food security. In his point of view, agriculture alone does not present Africa with opportunities to end hunger and malnutrition. Farmers must focus on agribusiness to achieve change, creating employment and generating income, addressing climate change and many other issues impacting African nations.

HE Obasanjo stressed that agribusiness is the prime component of the continent's economy. He noted, also, that the business of farming has not received the attention needed. Many farmers are correctly concerned with agricultural techniques, but they do not also concern themselves with profitability, with sustainable commercial practices. He spoke freely of how his return to farming at Obasanjo Farms has afforded him with a more refined understanding of ways in which farmers can change, can reframe agriculture so that their farms become true agribusinesses. Profitability means provision of employment opportunities to youth. When African people under 25 years of age, half of whom are reckoned to be unemployed, see that money can be made from the land, there is a greater chance that they will stay in the village and on the farm. It is more likely that they will help develop local communities through business practices. It is more likely that Africa's "cycles of food crises" will cease.

Acknowledging agricultural entrepreneurs
HE President Obasanjo has preferred at times to describe his my return to farming in terms of his "coming full circle", returning to a path he left as a youth for success in the city, the professionalism of the army, and the ultimate position in political leadership. However, he disowns this stance for African Review. He values his past achievements, but he has no need to return to the past. He wants to empower African youth to create a better future for all. He wants to help create agricultural and agribusiness opportunities that lead Africa's youth to "lucrative, exciting entrepreneurial pursuits" and to help reward young people for aspiring to be farmers because it is "a rewarding career". To that end, the Africa Food Prize has been created to recognise outstanding contributions to the continent's agricultural agenda. Above all, the Africa Food Prize has been created to signal to the world that agriculture is a priority for Africa that can and should be embraced. It spotlights those who can inspire innovation, and spread best practices across the continent. The new goal for HE President Obasanjo is that the Africa Food Prize "becomes a symbol of all that agriculture in Africa can offer".