William Asiko came to the helm of the Rockefeller Foundation Africa Regional Office just in 2019. The foundation’s Managing Director is, however, not new to Africa’s development issues.
Asiko started his career as an attorney in the external resources department of the government of Kenya. He has worked for The Coca-Cola Company at various positions and in several countries including the USA, Morocco, UK, Kenya, and South Africa. He was also the Executive Director of Grow Africa, which was jointly established by the World Economic Forum, the African Union (AU), and the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) to accelerate private sector investment into African agriculture. Asiko was also the CEO of the Investment Climate Facility for Africa (ICF), a pan-African development organization.
Asiko earned a law degree from the University of Nairobi in 1987 and an MBA from Emory University’s Goizueta Business School in the United States in 2005. EBR spoke to the Managing Director of the Rockefeller Foundation Africa Regional Office on various issues via zoom from his office based in Nairobi.
The Rockefeller Foundation has stayed long enough in Africa to learn the challenges across the continent. What criteria is used to pick a country or sector to fund, since all African economies have problems?
Africa has different problems. Most international institutions often talk as if Africa’s problem is homogenous and has one factor. The 54 countries have different challenges, currencies, languages, symptoms, policy adaptations, capacity of governments, and budget executions. The Rockefeller Foundation has been around for over 100 years, longer than most philanthropic foundations. The philosophy of the Foundation is eradicating big challenges. It is one of the first foundations to engage in eradicating polio, for instance.
So we take a similar approach in Africa. We talk about sectoral issues rather than country specific issues. For instance, energy is one of the challenges in Africa. Rockefeller Foundation has three initiatives in Africa, which are the eradication of energy shortage, increasing availability of proper nutrition and diet, and using technology to improve healthcare delivery at community levels in a more effective way. These are sectoral issues.
The only criteria we look for in terms of working with governments is their willingness to work with us. We look at their plans. If their economic and development plans align with our initiatives, we work with the government as a partner. We get more mileage in our investment only when we co-invest with the government. So we simply work with governments willing to work with us.
Which sectoral initiatives are progressing well and what are the Foundation’s achievements in Africa? Which countries are doing well?
Development is broad. So, the Rockefeller Foundation focuses on specific areas and is focused on building capacity to solve challenges. One of the key achievements of the Foundation over the last ten years is its role in establishing the Alliance for Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA). AGRA was established ten years ago with the goals of improving food security, increasing productivity, and working on state capacity and policy to advance African agriculture along the Comprehensive African Agricultural Development Program, CADAP, which was adopted by the African Union (AU) in Maputo in 2004.
We established AGRA in cooperation with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, USAID, the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID), and other donors. AGRA is successful in countries in which it is operating, especially in aligning policies towards increasing productivity, supporting government policies towards inputs, seeds, and fertilizers. Recently, we started working on aligning government policies towards private sector investment.
African states promised to allocate 10Pct of their budget to agriculture during the AU summit in 2014. Do you think they are on track?
In the first place, 10Pct is not enough. Yet, only four African countries have achieved the threshold. But, many African countries are going in the right direction. Most states have increased from 3Pct to 6Pct. Some countries started from a very low base so it is difficult to reach 10Pct in a short time. African countries need to invest a lot more in agriculture.
Which countries have achieved the 10Pct thus far?
Rwanda, Ethiopia, Ghana, and Senegal, if I am not wrong.
Some African economies are resource based. Do you think structural transformation from agriculture to industry works for all?
All African countries should prioritize agriculture because a large section of their populations depends on this sector, whether the economy is resource based or not. Development is inclusive only when the economy trickles down to the majority of the population. The only way Africa can do that is through developing agriculture.
The Rockefeller Foundation works on improving fertilizer use to modernize agriculture. But modernizing agriculture entails greenhouse gas emissions. How can you achieve agricultural modernization and a climate resilient economy at the same time? Do you think it is feasible to change East Africa’s agriculture, which has been tested over centuries?
Climate change is scientific, real, and getting hostile in Africa. It is difficult to have agricultural development and a climate resilient economy at the same time. But it is feasible, as long as the agricultural management is appropriate. Africa needs to focus on irrigation and agroindustry.
One of Foundation’s initiatives in Africa is food nutrition. Do you think that focusing on nutrition and diet is right in a continent and region (East Africa) where people have a hard time accessing food? Don’t you think the priority should be solving food insecurity, rather than nutrition?
True that hunger is still killing many Africans. But it is still right for Africa to focus on nutrition and diet. Both food security and nutrition are necessary for Africans. Most of the nutritious foods are highly processed and imported from outside Africa. They are cheap and available. With the right policies and government support, Africa can produce more nutritious foods locally. Just like the climate and agriculture, Africa can also have food security and food nutrition at the same time, with the right policies and support in place.
A lot of international foundations and development organizations in Africa run different programs and initiatives in the same country, rather than pooling their funds into a single project in a bid to avoid program overlapping, resource wastage, and duplication of effort. How is the Rockefeller Foundation’s coordination with other similar organizations working in Africa?
The question of coordination is very critical. First of all, we align our projects with the priorities of national governments. Then we align our projects with other organizations working in similar sectors in the specific country. For instance, we work with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and many other organizations on food security issues. Currently, we also work in coordination with the African CDC and other organizations in order to fight COVID-19.
Many African countries like Ethiopia usually prepare great plans but fail to execute. Is it development or building institutions that should come first?
Institutional and state capacity remains the biggest challenge in Africa. State capacity across sectors, departments, and disciplines must improve. One of the programs we work on is supporting governments to improve their efficiency. Capacity building of governments is critical, as it remains the biggest bottleneck in Africa. Many African states are unable to translate external financing into effective and sustainable development projects.
Will the Foundation change its initiatives from existing projects to COVID-19?
Yes. The COVID-19 pandemic is affecting all sectors across the continent. It is not only the impact of the virus but also the economic damage of the shutdown. We will redirect our efforts towards averting the short- and long-term impacts of the pandemic.
What are your recommendations for the post COVID-19 era and plans for Africa in terms of curbing COVID-19 impacts?
Our plan is increasing Africa’s coronavirus testing capacity. Testing is the determining element of controlling the pandemic. We are working with African CDC, African governments, and external donors to establish and strengthen emergency response and testing capacity development across Africa. Most African countries are less prepared for this pandemic, lack expertise, and capacity.
Do you think countries like Ethiopia that have closed sectors like finance and telecom to foreigners are competent enough to attract FDI? Is liberalization or privatization better for FDI inflow? What are your recommendations for FDI to improve in Africa?
What Africa needs is nurturing and developing its private sector. You cannot attract FDI in large and sustainable scale without the correct policies in place. The role of governments is ensuring the right guiding principles are in place. Governments also need to provide infrastructure and a policy environment. Governments need to privatize state enterprises as fast as possible to boost commercial activities. History demonstrates that the private sector is the pillar of competition and growth.
Africa’s external financing is shifting from aid to loans. To what extent does this affect Rockefeller Foundation’s fund raising? Do you think the necessity of endowments will be critical as in the past?
When we talk about endowment foundations, we are talking about resources available for development. If you look at the top ten private foundations (based in the USA), they have in excess of a billion dollars. Many of them are working in Africa.
Today, we think the challenges are not resources or development investments. The challenge is finding the right policies and investment friendly countries that can work with development partners, in a way that contributes to private sector development. We have more resources than before. Working on partnership projects as development partners is critical now.
Which African countries have the best policies and investment environment best suited for the private sector?
Rwanda is one of the thriving African countries where the private sector is welcomed. They have good commercial activities. Kenya is also doing well. Historically, Kenya has been a good supporter of the private sector. Countries like Egypt and Senegal are working in that direction.
Development partners usually ignore good governance and the dragging effects of politics on development. Do you think development can be achieved without the democratization process?
Democratization is critical for any country that wants to develop. If you look at the correlation between good governance and economic development, there are many showcases around the world. Development equals perfect leadership, fighting corruption, and efficient use of resources. So good governance is desired for development. Rockefeller Foundation requires good government policies, alignments, and support to work with governments. African governments are making good progress in good governance over the last twenty years.
These days, all African countries conduct regular elections, although some have credibility issues. But few years ago, there were many countries where people do not vote. The majority of African countries are in good direction in terms of good governance. But they need to work on real changes rather than conducting elections just for legitimacy.
Do you think the upcoming African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) will place Africa on the power balance with the global economy?
Africa has a huge and growing internal market, investment destinations, and potential especially in virgin arable land. So Africa needs to work on its potentials to become a more powerful economic block in the global economy, besides creating its own fluent market system and becoming a global economic block.
Which African economies are ready to benefit most from AfCFTA?
All African countries have tremendous potential to grow exponentially, if they manage to do very simple homework: fixing infrastructure, ensuring efficient economic policy environment, and nurturing the private sector. These things are not difficult for governments to do. These can increase FDI inflow. A number of African countries have done this very well and others are following. Rwanda did very well and Ethiopia is thriving in terms of building infrastructure and FDI attraction. Senegal, Ghana, Kenya, and Tanzania are also doing great things to attract the private sector.
But Africa still remains a place of worries in terms of governance, security, civil unrest, and infrastructure challenges. Governments need to do a lot to remedy the perceived negative impacts. In general, private sector growth is slow in Africa.
Some experts argue genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are the solution for Africa to grow its agriculture in a short period of time. What is your take on GMOs?
I rather prefer to comment on the immense potential in Africa’s agriculture. The biggest potential area for Africans to move their economies forward is the agricultural sector. If African countries can mobilize the right policies, investment infrastructure and environment, and private sector investment, we will see a very huge agricultural output in a very short time. Over 70Pct of African economies rely on agriculture, in one way or another. And if they develop their agriculture, they will develop the economy and lift most of their population, most of whom are women, out of poverty. Africa must direct the private sector investment towards the agriculture sector.
Do you think AfDB alone can fill the financing gap of cross border infrastructure in Africa?
Regional integration remains a critical issue in Africa. Many countries are doing great in terms of integrating with their neighbors. Regional Economic Communities (RECS) are also doing good but there remains a very long way to go. Non-tariff barriers remain a key challenge, partly due to political issues in individual countries. I am very excited about the progress of AfCFTA. It will bring a drastic change in Africa, at the continental level, if it is well implemented. AfCFTA is the top game changer for Africa, in moving economies forward. It will exponentially increase intra-Africa trade. Africa’s imports from the rest of the world will reduce and this will contribute to import substitution, domestic value chains, and agricultural growth.
Do you think AfDB’s financing scheme is enough?
The need to integrate Africa’s infrastructure is so high. We cannot expect only AfDB to close the infrastructure investment gap in Africa. AfDB is doing a great job but more financing institutions are needed at the continental level. Africa’s problem is not resource but projects are unable to absorb resources in a sustainable manner. The President of AfDB also understands this. AfDB itself can do more, if they stick to innovative financing mechanisms. Africa also needs attractive policies to engage the private sector in continental infrastructure development.
Do you think the policy recommendations by the West fit Africa?
I do not think the ‘one-size-fits-all’ works for all problems. What is critical for Africa’s growth is private sector development, not assistance from developed countries. Africa needs innovative financial systems to grow, instead of the traditional growth approach based on Western assistance. There are a lot of sectors in Africa with high potential for good returns, if the private sector invests in them. Africa must emphasize boosting private sector investment, rather than relying on external aid and assistance. Foreign aid can be used only in sectors and areas where private sector investment is too risky. State budget alone is also not enough for the growing need for infrastructure in Africa. That is why private sector investment is critical.
African states are usually required to create an investment environment that fits Western multinational companies that produce in Africa but export the products to Western countries. Do you think privatization and liberalization in Africa is done by prioritizing domestic private sector and import substitution?
Africa should focus on micro and small enterprise development in order to grow the domestic private sector. African countries should create the best business environment and support, as much as they try to attract and appease foreign investors. We should not prioritize FDI over the domestic private sector. A country achieves sustainable and reliable growth by prioritizing its own private sector.
What are Rockefeller Foundation’s plans for Africa and specifically Ethiopia in the near and long term? How much funding has the foundation allocated to fight COVID-19?
We are focusing on a number of things. In terms of COVID-19, the foundation has highly concentrated on increasing Africa’s testing capacity. We only put the pandemic under control when we are able to make as many tests as possible. We are coordinating our efforts with other institutes. Secondly, we are working on averting the economic impacts of COVID-19 on African economies. Agriculture is the foundation of African economies. But the pandemic affected input supplies for agriculture as well as the market value chain of agricultural outputs. Farmers have been unable to sell their produce since the onset of the pandemic. The food system in Africa is also getting more fragile under the pandemic. Markets and supply chains are exposed to social distancing measures. Now people die either of the pandemic or hunger. This is what many local governments are currently dealing with.
Rockefeller Foundation is coordinating with other foundations and organizations in availing sanitation and equipment for fighting the pandemic. African open air markets are critical during the pandemic in order to allow a fluent food market flow across the continent. .EBR
9th Year • Oct 16 – Nov 15 2020 • No. 91