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African Agriculture Rising: Prosperity for a select few or will ALL of Africa rise?

August 11, 2015

I got the exciting opportunity to address the 2014 AGRF held at the Nelson Mandela hall of the African Union.  Coverage of my speech included:

The full text of my speech is below:

Five months ago I left academia as well as the young women’s leadership incubator that I had founded 10 years prior to accept a position as Director of African Women in Agricultural Research and Development (AWARD).

I was drawn to AWARD and the agricultural sector in particular because of my big-eyed wonder at the potential that agriculture has to be the driver of Africa’s transformative growth. Trained as a Political Scientist, I’ve grown perhaps skeptical of expectations that we have any hope of transforming a continent that is still hungry. I am optimistic that agriculture filling Africa’s hungry bellies and nourishing her stunted children is the place we must first start if we are to drive the transformation that we all dream of.

I have received many warm welcomes including this tremendous opportunity to stand in the hallowed halls of the African Union. I am deeply grateful for this opportunity to address you, many of you my elders.

So allow me to come to you as a younger sister and even as a daughter. A beautiful thing about out African cultures is the tremendous space each of them allows for young people to ask questions in the process of learning. It is this opportunity that I seek to take. Allow me thin to come to you as a young woman with questions that are at once naïve, but that are, at the same time, hopefully provocative.

The first question that I have for you, and for all of us really, is: Why is it that Africa must increase food production?

I realize how simple this question sounds but it does honestly come from a place of confusion out of the many difference answers I have received to the same question since coming into the agricultural sector.

It seems to me that, as Africans, we are at an urgent crossroads and facing a critical decision. We must decide whether increased food production will be part of what H.E. the Minister of Agriculture from Nigeria called a ‘prodigal agriculture’. An agriculture that follows previous paths of extraction and export of Africa’s natural resources but serves only to grow our poverty.

That is one fork in the road.

Instead, it seems that we must increase Africa’s food production so that we can feed Africans and build African wealth and prosperity.

What at first seems a simple question is suddenly steeped in a bitter history and continued threat of the extraction & appropriation of African resources that does not build African prosperity.

Clarity about WHY we must increase food production then becomes an important as we continue these conversations.

Once we establish what I heard called ‘an adequate consensus’ about why increased production is important, then we have increasing clarity on why we must build agricultural value chains that are inclusive.

Because even as we celebrate Africa’s rising, we must maintain a commitment to ALL of Africa rising. This is a call that H.E. the chair of the African Union reminded us so eloquently about during the opening plenary.

Allow me here to invoke that famed reggae musician, Bob Marley, who reminded us that when it rains, it does not rain on one man’s house alone.

You are not wealthy when your brother sleeps hungry and lays in waiting ready to pounce on you at the gate of your mansion as you drive out in the morning. That is not wealth.

True African prosperity must see ALL Africans rise. To achieve that, inclusivity is imperative.

The second question, perhaps a naïve question, but I think a critical one still is: HOW do we build this inclusivity into our work?

And here allow me to lean into my training as a Political Scientist and ask a question I learnt to ask often. Which ‘others’ are we seeking to include? Which women are we including? Which youth are we including?

In conversations about inclusiveness we often talk about categories of people at the margins of our societies as if they are a monolithic whole. We often use lenses that do not allow us to capture the complexities of real life.

Intersections of identities are important.

None of us here fits neatly into just one category of identity. You may be male but come from a marginalized pastoralist community. You may be female but come from a family of wealth and power.

Our identities are complex.

African identities are complex.

Commitment to building inclusive agricultural value chains will recognize the complexity of the identities of those we seek to include.

This has real implications for our work, our daily work.

For example, when discussing question of inclusiveness in access to land for agricultural production, we must make sure that women are part of the equation. But we must also ask ‘which women?’, avoiding the temptation to conflate all women into one monolithic group.

Many of us here know that in our families, the relationship between the mother in law and the daughter in law is often a complicated power dynamic. A dynamic which impacts young women’s access to land.

Which women?

And this is not just a women’s issue. Because often when it’s a women’s issue, its easier to slip it under the carpet and forget it.

We know that as sub-divisible plots of arable land are decreasing and that young men also have increased challenges accessing land and are forced into urban poverty.

So questions of land and land access must have at the center issues of inclusiveness.

A second example, technology in agriculture, offers tremendous promise. But we also know that infrastructure imbalances place rural populations at a disadvantage compared to urban ones when it comes to taking advantage of the opportunities offered by technology is revolutionizing African agriculture.

These complexities don’t mean that we stop addressing issues of land access or technology in agriculture. It means we must constantly be reminded of WHY we are doing this work. We are doing it so that ALL Africans may rise.

My third and final provocation is to challenge us to address the issue of inclusiveness not as an issue of charity. As if, by including those at the margins of our societies, we are doing them a favor. The question of inclusivity is not about charity; it is about building Africa’s prosperity.

Two examples come to mind:

It has not made sense to me that as a continent, we continue to deny ourselves the talent and the brilliance of women who comprise 50% of our population. Why is it that we we are ok to leave behind 50% of our potential leaders, innovators, women who may hold the solutions to the biggest challenges facing this continent? Why is it that, through systems that leave women outside of decision making, outside of the rooms where critical decisions are made, we do not access for ourselves, as a continent, the tremendous resources that these women represent?

The youth bulge in Africa. We have an opportunity in Africa. We can either see the increased number of young people on this continent as a threat, as a destabilizing force, or we can look over to Europe, look over to Japan and see they way they look at our young population with envy as their own population ages. We have tremendous power with the labor force that is coming up. Including young people, having young people present at the table when we set policies, when we have these conversations is going to be critical to whether young people are a threat or an opportunity for Africa.

I want to close by reminding us that a generation ahead of us fought hard for Africa’s independence. This year many of our countries are celebrating 50 years of independence.

But unfortunately we can agree that even with independence, African prosperity has remained somewhat elusive. Many of the aspirations that our fathers and mothers had at independence have not yet been realized.   Some have, but too many of our people remain poor.

I firmly believe that we, those of us in this room, are the generation charged with bringing about Africa’s prosperity. Our fathers, our mothers brought independence. It is on us who are alive 50 years from independence to secure Africa’s prosperity.

We are the ones we have been waiting for.

But even as we work towards a prosperous Africa we have a set of tough set of urgent question that we must answer first: Prosperity for who? Is it going to be prosperity for a select few who won’t be able to sleep comfortably at night or will ALL of Africa rise?

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