One of the pleasures of being a department head is getting to celebrate the successes and accomplishments of students, faculty, and alumni. Last week, Akinwumi (Akin) Adesina, an MS and PhD graduate of the Department of Agricultural Economics at Purdue University, was awarded the World Food Prize, and I had the opportunity to engage with him a bit at events prior to the ceremony and yesterday when he returned to campus for a visit.
To say I was impressed by Akin would be an understatement. He is smart, passionate, and gregarious, which helps explain how he became president of the African Development bank after previously serving as Nigerian Agriculture Minister. In, 2013 he was Forbes man of the year in Africa, and probably more telling than anything else, he’s giving away the $250,000 prize money from the World Food Prize to create a fund to promote African youth in agriculture.
Akin's visit caused me to reflect on the ability of good economic work to substantially impact people's lives and on the state of the academic economics profession generally. He told a story about how, early on in his career, after witnessing grain bins in a farm village overflowing with a new, high yielding sorghum variety, he realized that food security was more than just agronomy: without developing markets to sell higher-yielding crops varieties, the benefits would not be widely distributed and enjoyed. The market and economic approach to helping solve African food security and poverty problems have become signatures of Akin's career. Among Akin's many accomplishments that rely on this economic-based approach, I'll mention two (see here for more details).
First, he noticed that several promising technologies and crop varieties already existed but were not being adopted because farmers lacked the resources to acquire the new technologies that could substantially increase yield. By promising to partially backstop loans (initially via a fund from the Rockefeller Foundation), he encouraged banks to make capital available to farmers. Despite banks' initial reluctance to loan to farmers, there were very low loan failure rates, and the program was successful and was scaled up, eventually leveraging hundreds of millions of dollars that flowed to the African agricultural sector to increase agricultural productivity. This is one of several efforts he and his team are working on to reduce the risk of investing in African agriculture.
Second, as Minster of Agriculture in Nigeria, he aimed to tackle the problem under-use of fertilizer in the country. Yes, in many parts of the developed world, there are problems associated with over-use of fertilizer, but in Africa the problem is just the reverse. The problem is that for decades fertilizer had been purchased by the government and then was distributed to farmers. The program was rife with corruption and only well-connected farmers had access to fertilizer. Akin initiated a disruptive technological solution to the problem: fertilizer subsidies were instead directly distributed to farmers via their mobile phones. Within a few months, decades of corruption were overturned and fertilizer became much more accessible. As a result, crop yields increased significantly. His efforts earned him the nickname: "the farmers' minister."
One of the things Akin mentioned several times over the past few days is that he aims for Africans to see farming as a business. This runs so counter to our developed-world pastoral ideals about what farming should be. Yet, we can afford to harbor these romantic notions precisely because the farmers in the US became much more business-like over the past century. Another of Akin's goals is, in his words, to make agriculture sexy. Through a variety of efforts, he's encouraging what he calls "agri-preneurs", to prompt investment in agriculture.
It is useful to contrast this body of work with what we typically do in academics. In academic economics, focus has shifted in recent decades toward research problems where there can be strong credible claims about identification and causal relationships (i.e., are we sure X is causing Y or are the two just correlated?). In development economics, the shift has led to more randomized controlled trials (RCTs) to evaluate effectiveness of interventions. These changes have been good for the profession and I fully support the shift. However, Akin’s visit also made me a bit more sympathetic to some of the critics (including prominent figures such as Angus Deaton and James Heckman) of these methodological changes. The concern is that the “randomistas”, as they are sometimes derogatorily called, miss the “big questions” and the “important issues”, focusing instead only on those problems and data sets that lend themselves to making strong causal claims that can be published in top academic journals. My view is that the economics profession is big enough to do both: we can pursue the big questions while simultaneously thinking about creative ways to uncover causal mechanisms. Akin’s work is really inspirational in showing how good economic policy based on solid economic theory (i.e. the presumed causal mechanisms) can help improve the lives of millions of people.