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Purdue alum from Africa is given World Food Prize

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Four months ago, the World Food Prize – often called “the Nobel Peace Prize for food” – was awarded to Akinwumi Ayodeji Adesina, president of the African Development Bank group. Amazingly, Adesina learned the skills he needed to reach his new title in Indiana.

Late last month, Adesina spoke with Purdue president Mitch Daniels and answered questions from a room full of students and faculty members in Purdue’s Stewart Center. Adesina’s talk seemed to inspire members of the audience as he explained his lifelong commitment to helping his home country, Nigeria, and the continent.

The World Food Prize is the highest international honor recognizing the achievements of those who have advanced human development by improving the quality, quantity and availability of food in the world.

“I think that God put me on the earth for a reason,” he said. “And I think that reason is to bring millions of people out of poverty.”

Throughout his extensive career so far, Adesina has already reached that goal.

In 2011, Adesina became Nigeria’s minister of agriculture – a role which allowed him the resources to end 40 years of corruption in the country’s fertilizer industry. He developed and put into place an electronic wallet system which provides Nigerian farmers with subsidies using their mobile phones. With this innovative system, he transformed the lives of 14.5 million farmers and Nigeria’s food production grew by 21 million metric tons. But that was only one of many accomplishments to come.

In 2015, Adesina became president of the African Development Bank and has since worked to ensure smallholder farmers and agribusinesses succeed. His other important roles relating to agriculture include his time in the Rockefeller Foundation at the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) and organizing the African Fertilizer Summit. In his role at AGRA, he convinced banks to invest in agriculture and worked to directly connect farmers to markets. For example, he convinced the Bank of Uganda to lend to farmers growing bananas using $500,000 from Rockefeller’s Program Related Investment.

Adesina is the third Purdue alumnus to earn the World Food Prize. In his early years at the university, he struggled financially to make ends meet, but nevertheless he earned his master’s (1985) and doctoral (1988) degrees, and was awarded an honorary doctorate from Purdue in 2015.

“One day I realized I only had 35 cents in the world to my name,” Adesina reminisced about his college years. “So I went to one of my favorite professors, and I said ‘I only have 35 cents’ and so he opened his desk drawer, took out his checkbook and wrote me a check for $100. He said, ‘you pay that back at the end of your PhD.’”

Sure enough, Adesine paid the professor back after he graduated.

Most recently, Adesina has declared his major goal to end malnutrition and stunting – an affliction caused by chronic undernutrition in early life that effects more than 40 percent of children in Africa.

He also has a dream for Africa to one day feed itself and the world – something he believes is possible with time and economic improvements.

“For me it is actually mind-boggling that Africa is not able to feed itself.” he said. “There’s lots of land, lots of cheap labor, lots of water and it’s warm. I believe that Africa can not only feed itself, but also contribute to feeding all the rest of the world. We have a lot of young people. About 420 million young people between the ages of 12 and 35. I want people to understand that agriculture is cool. Ag is cool, and sexy, and the greatest thing you can ever have. I am trying to get young people into agriculture because when they do, it will bring innovation.”