Lead with local solutions: What I learned while supporting agriculture transformation in Africa

In June 2022, I stepped down from my role as the head of Support to State Capability at AGRA. After four years focused on capacity building for agricultural transformation, I leave the hustle and bustle of Nairobi to begin a new venture.

During my time at AGRA, I have supported a multitude of state and non-state actors, helping to create the policies, frameworks and environments necessary to drive change in the agriculture sector. In the course of this work, ‘the why has always been clear. Across Africa, agriculture remains a vital source of livelihood, supporting about 65% of the population, mainly the poor.[1] Overall, the sector accounts for 61% of employment opportunities, 20% of gross domestic product (GDP), and 9.2% of total exports.[2] As such, agriculture is critical to the achievement of key development goals, such as food and nutrition security, import substitution, and economic growth, which in turn stimulate job creation, poverty alleviation, and youth and gender empowerment. Efforts to help African countries realise their agricultural potential, and enable inclusive sector transformation, are, therefore, essential.

What has been less clear is ‘the how’Naturally, different countries take different approaches. Rwanda, for example, has created a Single Project Implementation Unit (SPIU) that merges all relevant entities within the Ministry of Agriculture to deliver transformation programmes. In Ethiopia, the Agriculture Transformation Agency (ATA), which is modelled on the ‘special agencies’ of South Korea, Taiwan and Malaysia, has been established for this task. And in Nigeria, transformation plans are implemented through the alignment of state and federal leadership. Across Africa, there is a diverse range of agricultural delivery mechanisms and models. But which is best? What works and what doesn’t? And should these mechanisms be integrated into, or independent of, government systems?

The following insights and observations draw from my experience of working with countries on agricultural policies and programmes. They are intended to highlight some of the major gaps and barriers that still exist across the continent. They also aim to help shape strategies that will enable the successful delivery of agricultural transformation.

Commitment to the cause

High-calibre staff and well-functioning institutions are essential to effective delivery. But alone, they are not enough. To be truly impactful, delivery mechanisms need to be underpinned by strong moral foundations. Staff, for example, must be fully aligned with their organisation’s mission and values. Such alignment is critical, as it is the primary driver of engagement. It is the principal motivating factor in an employee’s everyday actions and endeavours. Without it, key personnel – be they ministers, directors, officers or managers – will lack the discipline and dedication required to deliver programme objectives.

Commonly found within the public sector in Africa, moral responsibility for agricultural transformation is imperative yet seldom prioritised. And no amount of institutional staff capacity can fill this gap. At every level, everyone working towards transformation has to view delivery as their moral duty, and their core purpose. It has to be part of their DNA. If we cannot achieve genuine commitment to the cause, transformation efforts will be compromised, lacking the impetus, conviction and continuity needed to deliver results.

By way of example, a key factor in Israel’s success in transforming its agriculture sector was the unwavering and universal support generated for the programme. During the mid-to-late 20th century, agricultural development was decreed a national priority, with strong, unifying leadership and vision from the highest levels of government. As a result, delivery was non-negotiable, and the relentless efforts of the country’s agricultural pioneers enabled the most unlikely of green revolutions. Today, despite its arid climate and landscape, Israel is a world leader in dairy, fruit and vegetable production, water management and post-harvest handling.

The burden of bureaucracy

Another contributor to Israel’s success, one I have witnessed first-hand, is the lack of bureaucratic constraints within its institutions. Compared to the African public sector, where requests to meet with senior officials often need to be sent and approved by letter, Israel’s civil service enjoys a level of informality that is immensely liberating. Everyone is addressed by their name, not their title. Open-door policies create an environment that encourages new ideas and innovation, enabling programme objectives to be achieved quickly and efficiently.

African institutions, which are often heavily hierarchical, should learn from this example. In many African countries, cumbersome, siloed and slow-moving structures, entrenched in the bureaucratic procedure, present insurmountable barriers to progress. Government ministries also tend to be staffed by ageing personnel, who are unwilling to countenance new ways of working. Not only do these restrictive environments impede delivery; they fail to attract and engage the young leaders of the future.

But there is hope. In Kenya, the Agriculture Transformation Office (ATO), which was recently established as the primary delivery mechanism for the country’s Agricultural Sector Transformation and Growth Strategy (ASTGS), has presented an alternative model. Housed within the Ministry of Agriculture, the ATO was mandated to enhance coordination across the sector by breaking down siloes and slashing the red tape that has traditionally hindered transformation efforts. As Covid-19 hit, the ATO was enlisted to support Kenya’s Food Security War Room (FSWR), the government’s rapid response unit created to oversee food security during the pandemic.

By passing the usual bureaucratic protocols, the ATO and FSWR showed how direct lines of communication, sector-wide coordination and action-oriented processes can expedite decision-making and delivery. Thanks to these efforts, Kenya successfully navigated the multiple challenges it faced at the time of the Covid outbreak. And although conceived in a time of crisis, these mechanisms provide lessons in collaboration, engagement, efficiency and speed that should now be leveraged across the continent.

Ministry mandates

The operationalisation of the ATO in Kenya highlights the extent to which ministries are heavily reliant on specialist agencies and units – internally created or externally appointed – to deliver their primary mandate. Over and over again, capacity issues arise in government that call for agency support. Is it time, then, to review the roles of those institutions currently in charge of agricultural transformation at the country level?

In Ethiopia, the ATA was originally empowered to report directly to the Prime Minister’s Office, rather than the actual ministry whose mandate it was helping to achieve. Further, the creation of parallel institutions within government has major cost implications, while also generating horizontal and vertical duplication of functions.

So, what does the future hold? Will government ministries ultimately be supplanted by specialist agencies? Or can existing institutions be reformed to become more streamlined, progressive and impactful? One solution could be to reduce the number of ministries within government (for example, having 10 instead of 30), while using agencies to bridge key capacity gaps. By moving away from heavy government structures, agencies and ministries could begin to work together with greater synergy and efficiency. This approach could also address some of the rampant challenges of attracting and retaining talented civil servants, such as providing better financial incentives.

Context is key

Above all, delivery models and mechanisms have to be tailored to the country’s context. Back in the 1980s, Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs) paved the way for debt relief in Africa, conditional upon economic liberalisation and privatisation. These solutions, imposed from the outside, had scant regard for the national economies and cultural systems within which African societies function. As a result, local ownership of political and economic decision-making, and commitment to implementation, were diminished. This in turn led to non-prioritised, poorly customised and sequenced strategies that have failed to deliver agricultural transformation.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution to the challenges facing African agriculture. And external interventions, parachuted in from above, with no contextual awareness or nuance, will continue to fall short of the mark. Through my work with AGRA, I have learned that successful interventions begin from a point of understanding achieved through rigorous diagnostics and dialogue. In order to deliver in a way that is meaningful and sustainable, agencies, donors and other actors need to put their own perspectives and agendas to one side. Rather than impose their own programme templates, they need to listen to what the people and institutions on the ground require in order to advance. Because every country and every culture is different, it is only through customised, context-relevant responses that we will begin to make genuine strides towards agricultural transformation in Africa.