Akinwumi Adesina, then a future Nigerian minister of agriculture, was talking one day with the late agronomist and humanitarian Norman Borlaug about an initiative to fight hunger in Africa. As they walked down New York’s Fifth Avenue, Borlaug asked Adesina if he liked to play soccer.
Yes, replied Adesina, an agricultural economist.
“Akin, go score some goals for African agriculture,” said Borlaug, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate.
He did, and fittingly, Adesina, now president of the African Development Bank, is the 2017 winner of the $250,000 World Food Prize that Borlaug established to honor leadership in feeding the hungry. It is often called “the Nobel Prize for food and agriculture.”
The award is going to a farm laborer’s grandson who grew up in a one-room house without electricity or plumbing. He earned a university degree in Nigeria and went on to earn master’s and Ph.D. degrees in agricultural economy at Purdue University, a land-grant university in Indiana.
A post-doctoral fellowship propelled his three-decade-long career finding ways to help farmers in Nigeria and across Africa increase their crop yields and livelihoods. He helped launch and served as vice president of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, which provided loans to tens of thousands of farmers and agribusinesses in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Ghana and Mozambique.
Then, as Nigerian minister of agriculture from 2011 to 2015, he introduced an “E-Wallet” system that provided subsidized vouchers to farmers over their mobile phones to buy seeds and fertilizer directly instead of through a corrupt fertilizer distribution system.
His policies are credited with expanding Nigeria’s food production by 21 million metric tons and attracting $5.6 billion in private-sector investments.
The World Food Prize will be presented on October 19 in Des Moines, Iowa, during the annual Norman Borlaug International Symposium on global agriculture that draws more than 1,000 participants from dozens of countries.
“As someone who grew out of poverty, I know that poverty is not pretty,” Adesina said in June upon learning he would win this year’s award. “My life mission is to lift up millions of people out of poverty, especially farmers in rural areas of Africa. We must give hope and turn agriculture into a business all across Africa to create wealth for African economies.”
Last year two African plant scientists and two U.S. economists shared the World Food Prize.