By Eleanor Hasenbeck and Emma Beyer
DES MOINES, Iowa – It’s not often that heads-of-state dance in the Iowa State Capitol chambers, but dignitaries were out of their seats at the World Food Prize Laureate Ceremony. The ceremony honoring this year’s laureate, Akinwumi Ayodeji Adesina, was filled with the usual pomp and ceremony associated with the place and the Prize, but there was also song, dance and tears of joy.
Adesina committed the entirety of the $250,000 cash award to “set up a fund fully dedicated to providing financing for the youth of Africa in agriculture to feed Africa,” he said. “We will arise and feed Africa.”
For several minutes in the Iowa state capital, though, it was performing arts that took the stage. First the Purdue University Glee Club surprised Adesina by singing his alma mater’s fight song, “Hail Purdue!” and bringing tears to his eyes. Then, Adunni and Nefertiti performed traditional Nigerian music and Nigerian pop star Omawumi sang in Adesina’s honor. From the audience, Former President of Nigeria Olusegun Obasanjo, Adesina and his wife Grace got up and danced while the audience clapped along.
Before being presented the award, Adesina described via video a 2006 meeting with Norman Borlaug, the man hailed for creating the Green Revolution and feeding billions around the globe. Borlaug put his hand on Adesina’s shoulder and asked if he played soccer.
“He said ‘you know in soccer, if you score your first goal, you get the confidence [to] really win the match,’” Adesina said. “He patted me gently on the back, and he said ‘Akin, go and score the first goal for Africa.’”
Adesina has been heralded as “Africa’s Norman Borlaug.” For the past 25 years, Adesina has supported millions of farmers across Africa through his work with the Rockefeller Foundation, the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, and as Minister of Agriculture of Nigeria. Adesina transformed African agriculture through initiatives to expand agricultural production, stop corruption in the Nigerian fertilizer industry and exponentially increase the availability of credit for smallholder farmers across the African continent. Today, he serves as president of the African Development Bank.
Each year, the World Food Prize awards laureates for their advances in building a more sustainable future in agriculture. This year, the 2017 World Food Prize slogan, “the road out of poverty,” emphasized support to small farmers.
During the introductions, John Ruan III, chairman of The World Food Prize Foundation, surprised Adesina with a special video message from the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, Muhammadu Buhari.
“The award did not come as a surprise to the Nigerian people, or to me,” said President Buhari.
Buhari spoke about the vast improvements Adesina had brought to the country over the past 25 years, stating he was very proud of Adesina’s ability to rise above limitations to create change in communities.
“You are a true champion,” Buhari said in his message to Adesina.
Ruan continued to praise Adesina for his humility and his popularity.
“No one has caused me more trouble,” joked Ruan, commenting that 1,040 people had signed up to hear the laureate speak.
Adesina grew up in rural Nigeria. Born into humble beginnings, Adesina attended a village school because his father wanted him to see the reality of poverty. After rising to the top of his class in high school and the University of Ife in Nigeria, Adesina earned a master’s degree and Ph.D. in agricultural economics at Purdue University. Adesina became the first person with an agricultural background to lead a regional development bank, now serving as the president of the African Development Bank.
“Everything you do in life, it doesn’t matter what it is, you’ve got to eat, so food first,” said Adesina. I think the World Food Prize is a great investment that puts the wind behind the sail of what the African Development Bank is trying to do.”
Through his work, Adesina hopes to better the lives of African people through agriculture development. He explained the African Development Bank’s five priorities: to light up and power, feed, integrate, industrialize and improve the quality of life on the continent.
The 2017 World Food Prize Laureate, Akinwumi Ayodeji Adesina, greets attendees during an award ceremony. (Photo by Emma Beyer)