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The Potential is Undeniable, But Nobody Eats Potential

African Development Bank Group President Dr Akinwumi Adesina makes an impassioned plea at the World Economic Forum “Food and Water for All” panel discussion in Riyadh.

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African Development Bank Group President Dr Akinwumi Adesina makes an impassioned plea at the World Economic Forum “Food and Water for All” panel discussion in Riyadh this week.

African Development Bank Group President Dr. Akinwumi Adesina urged for a coalition of public commitment and private sector finance to awaken Africa’s “staggering” agricultural potential, setting the stage for the continent to feed itself and contribute to global food security.

During the panel, global leaders and experts agreed Africa has the land and water to achieve this lofty ambition but lacked significant investments and regulatory frameworks to properly develop abundant unused land and vast water resources.

Adesina says that Africa needed a major across the board increase in infrastructure investment in this sector to around USD 78 billion by 2050.

“The potential is undeniable, but nobody eats potential. We must unlock that potential. The private sector is essential… but coupled with the creation of well run and administered public regulatory bodies,” says Adesina.

Overall, Africa has plenty of water but some of it is underground. Tapping into that potential and making far wider use of modern irrigation techniques, included those offered by AI are key strategy targets.

“We need more of the private sector, we have weak and poorly functioning utilities, we need to improve governance. A significant concerted action will help create an agricultural sector worth some 1.3 trillion dollars by 2030,” says Adesina.

The panel explored how targeted investment and advanced technologies could address the pressing needs of 2.4 billion people without adequate food and 2.2 billion lacking safe drinking water across the world, showcasing Africa’s role in this global challenge.

Adesina also says that small-scale farmers are important and that there is a need to provide them with new varieties of heat-tolerant and water-efficient varieties.

“While we push for modernization and scale, we must not overlook the smallholder farmers who are the backbone of our rural economies. Access to new technologies comes at a price but we have shown at the Bank the amazing effect climate efficient varieties can make,” says Adesina.

According to Adesina, the Bank has invested USD 3 billion in water projects over the past three years, connecting 15 million people to water and 17 million to sanitation, but millions still faced shortages. He drew attention on initiatives like the African Water Facility and called for more similar approaches. The African Water Facility, hosted by the Bank, provides grants and technical assistance to prepare bankable innovative water projects ready to attract private investment throughout Africa.

Adesina also challenged misconceptions about investment risks in Africa, highlighting a recent Bloomberg analysis which found that the default rate on infrastructure loans in Africa is significantly lower than other regions.

“The perception of risk often overshadows reality. Africa’s actual default rate is comparatively low, and we have mechanisms like partial credit guarantees to mitigate risks further,” says Adesina.

Commenting on investment, Zambia Minister of Finance and National Planning Situmbeko Musokotwane appealed to global investors.

“We have the land. We also have abundant water. What we need are financial resources and management expertise to transform these assets into productive agriculture.”

Musokotwane highlighted the vital role of technology in maximizing resource use, particularly in agriculture, to secure food for the world.

Echoing this sentiment, CEO of UPL Jai Shroff shared insights from recent agricultural innovations in Zambia.

“We introduced a shift from corn to sorghum, which is more drought-tolerant. The results were outstanding with sorghum achieving 100% yield while surrounding corn crops perished,” says Shroff.

Shroff advocated for large-scale farming as a vehicle for economic transformation, as witnessed in Brazil, and emphasized the need to secure land rights to attract long-term investments.

On the subject of water rights, the panel also addressed the economic and environmental costs of securing water through non-traditional means.

Lamar Holding President Lina Noureddin discussed the high cost and energy demands of desalination, a critical technology for water-scarce regions.

“Desalination is at least twice as expensive than accessing surface or groundwater. Despite this, it’s essential for regions like North Africa where water stress levels are exceedingly high,” says Noureddin.

The panelists decried the premium Africa pays for water security and agricultural productivity due to outdated infrastructure, climate challenges, and underinvestment. They called for a paradigm shift in how investments are channeled into the continent, advocating for innovative financing models, better risk management, and enhanced support for technological adaptation.

As the session concluded, the call to action was clear.

“Let us move beyond discussing potential and focus on actionable investments and collaborations that will unlock Africa’s agricultural capabilities,” says Adesina.

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