What do three heads of state, 10 ministers, 116 companies and a group of farmer leaders have in common?

They all want to see growth in Africa’s agriculture sector.

So do we – which is why we found ourselves at the Grow Africa Investment Forum in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, last Wednesday, in a room packed with nearly 300 people at the closing session. The atmosphere in the room was slightly electric, suspenseful.

One by one, speakers rose to say they felt we were nearing a tipping point. “What an epic moment,” said Josette Sheeran, the new Vice-Chair of the World Economic Forum, whose previous position as head of the UN World Food Programme brought her face to face with the brutal realities of hunger. Last week she spoke in front of a room full of business leaders whose investments and technologies could dramatically boost African food production.  “This [Forum] could transform the lives of millions of smallholder farmers,” she said, “this is the potential.”

To explain how we got to this moment, let me step back two years to a mysterious request from an African president.

President Jakaya Kikwete had agreed to host the World Economic Forum on Africa in Tanzania, but he had a special request. He wanted a focus on agriculture at the meeting which would generate “real results.” What did this mean? We went to Tanzania to find out.

In Dar es Salaam, we learned that Tanzania’s government had established agriculture as its top priority through the “Kilimo Kwanza” (Agriculture First) strategy, building on the national sector plan. The local community was actively involved, but to reach their ambitious goals, they wanted to bring in international investors and partners. They asked if the Forum could help – and what began as a series of public-private dialogues soon evolved, with the President’s direction and championship, into a major multistakeholder initiative to develop the Southern Agricultural Growth Corridor of Tanzania (SAGCOT).

Global companies, experts and others joined with local stakeholders to work intensively on an investment blueprint for the corridor, then established a SAGCOT Centre to facilitate partnership and sustainable investment. Numerous investments have been generated and expanded, attracting local, regional and global companies.  One year later, when President Kikwete reported his progress at our next World Economic Forum on Africa, six other African governments said they would like to make a similar effort.

By that time we had linked with the African Union and NEPAD, who have an interest in accelerating sustainable agricultural growth throughout Africa. NEPAD has a Comprehensive African Agricultural Development Programme (CAADP), which assists governments to develop agriculture sector investment plans. Until now these had focused on public-sector investment, which is insufficient for the projected needs. Could we build on these plans to prioritize and attract private-sector investment as well? We decided to work together to find out.

In this way, the Grow Africa partnership was formed just one year ago by the African Union, NEPAD and the World Economic Forum, with the goal of accelerating investment in African agriculture, in alignment with national priorities defined through CAADP. Countries would set the prioritiesand Grow Africa partners would help to engage investors. Seven countries volunteered to participate in the partnership’s initial year: Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Mozambique, Rwanda and Tanzania.

The countries worked intensively to define and prepare their investment priorities, we engaged a broad network of private-sector investors from Africa and the rest of the world, and on 9 May, all came together in Addis Ababa. In hours of energetic discussion, we saw ideas exchanged, new opportunities discovered and plans developed.

Most importantly, we saw nearly 300 people from extremely diverse backgrounds focus on a common goal. Sustainable growth in agriculture serves everybody: the farmers, their rural communities, companies and even governments.

The initial tangible results of this process will be announced publicly on Friday 18 May. Please stay tuned to hear an exciting announcement.

Lisa Dreier is Director of Food Security and Development Initiatives at the World Economic Forum USA.
For more information, visit our websites at
http://www.weforum.org/agriculture or http://www.growafrica.com.