INTERVIEW: Nigeria needs bridging leadership to make its diversity work – Adewale Ajadi, Country Director Synergos Nigeria


As Country Director of Synergos in Nigeria responsible for driving a State Partnership for Agriculture (SPA) programme in collaboration with the Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development (FMARD) and the governments of Benue, Kogi and Kaduna states, Adewale Ajadi has been at the bridging head of bringing people together to solve some of the complex problems of poverty through the support for agriculture in Nigeria.

This has been crucial but also fulfilling work for Ajadi, a lawyer, creative consultant, leadership expert, and author, whose organisation has been at the centre of innovation in producing livestock feeds from cassava waste, in a manner capable of resolving some of the violent tensions between farmers and herders across many communities in Nigeria.

On the sidelines of a Diversity Dialogue and the Nigerian Women in Agribusiness Stakeholders’ Dialogue, hosted by Synergos and the FMARD between November 14 and 16 in Abuja, he took time to speak to PREMIUM TIMES’ Ololade Bamidele on the unique methodology of the Synergos Institute and the difference it seeks to make in its interventions in Nigerian agriculture.

PT: What would you describe as the Synergos value proposition in Nigerian Agriculture?

Ajadi: Essentially, we are working to strengthen the system so that it can emerge strongly to make sure that agriculture moves from just subsistence to value addition, and to business orientation. As an agriculturalist, a farmer should be really effectively the owner of a small business, and have destinations for his or her products, and maybe be more capable of having the resilience and also the prosperity that such a proposition offers.

PT: Why the focus on gender- and nutrition-sensitive agriculture in Nigeria? 

Ajadi: Before you focus on that, firstly you have to understand that we are working with three states, particularly Kogi, Benue and Kaduna. They are the prototype states for our approach, to ensure that they have the systems necessary to make Agriculture viable for them on the longer term; so that they have the policies, the relationships, the structure, and that that is in alignment with the federal government. So you have to understand that context.

Women are about 70 per cent in the whole of the agriculture labour force, so that speaks for itself. It is enlightened self-interest. If women are not thriving in agriculture, then agriculture is simply not thriving. We are talking about the fact that most farmers are old; and this is not only about women but about men as well. And the only young people you have in agriculture, at least the majority of them, are women. We as a country are not leveraged in terms of about 50 percent of our population, and that is not sustainable.

Secondly, the women are more inclined to trying new ideas to improve yield; they are more inclined to be adaptive, and they are more inclined to engage nutrition. And most importantly, when women succeed, their families succeed.  It’s not necessarily true that when men succeed, their families succeed.

On nutrition, fundamentally nutrition is the nexus between health and food. You can be eating and still be basically unhealthy. You can be eating and still be basically hungry in the terms of the right minerals and the things that sustain your life. And in a country where healthcare is still sparsely spread, nutrition is a way of keeping people healthy and ensuring that you have a population that cannot just grow but thrive and become effective participants in the future of the country. So nutrition is essentially about food security and food health and it’s a bridging space between health, agriculture, water resources and a few other critical areas. 

PT: What actually motivates your interest in diversity?

Ajadi: Diversity is my life. I would say I am a pioneer in diversity and I developed the first global standard on diversity in England about 15 years ago. When I was doing this, I wasn’t thinking so much of Nigeria, I was thinking about England. And I used it in England, and I developed a business around it. Apart from that, as an African in England, it was a fascinating thing to understand how difference has become both a problem and an opportunity; and having studied it and having studied complexity, it seemed that diversity was just the next logical thing. But I left the field of diversity because it just got bugged down in the fact that an African or a black man is leading diversity – that’s what they would do, and all of that; and so however innovative you were, it did not really reach the global context I needed. And when I came to Nigeria, diversity wasn’t even in the front of mind, because I didn’t really think that we were ready to engage it. But with what we have been seeing in the past years is that it is a critical issue.

First, we are one of the most diverse countries in the world. Secondly, diversity is like that thing – if you don’t use it, you’re going to lose it; if you don’t use it, it becomes a problem. So, really it’s learning the discipline of using it, with values and principles. And the final point is that whether it is Boko Haram, or you look at the farmer and herdsmen conflicts, or you could go the Niger Delta, and you will see the issue of diversity, where we as a country have not really developed the capacity to do that.  All the things we have that seem to talk about diversity are not sophisticated enough – federal character is not sophisticated enough; ethnicity is not sophisticated enough. The truth of it is that it is a wedge issue as used by politician and social commentators.

So it’s an area where the disciplines of Synergos: bridging leadership – which is creating leadership across different areas, collaboration and personal reflection can bring things together. And perhaps most importantly, there is recognition that If Nigeria can be effective with diversity – and I suspect Nigeria is the only country in the world that is this diverse and doesn’t have a dominant hegemonic ethnic group. So if Nigerians can bring diversity – and by this I also mean gender equality, also between the rich and poor; if we can learn the language, the habits, the disciplines of collaborating effectively, the whole will be better than the sum of its parts. A Nigeria that is greater than the sum of its part is a world-beater; you are talking about a country that is not even using its diversity effectively but is number one in yam, and cassava production.

Then the other side of it when you use diversity effectively, you see what happens. Look at the Super Eagles beating Argentina a while ago; that shows prospects. If you look at Fela’s music, because Fela does not just do one ethnic group or the other. He’s plundered all different ethnic groups to build an excellent piece of music. You look at our arts and visual arts, which are increasingly showing some incredible robustness and the ability to tell powerful stories. Finally, you can look at the line from Nok down to Ugbo okwu, down to Ife, down to Benin, down to Tada, you will see incredible richness; or you want to look at the languages. I always say that Nigeria is a country of a thousand soups. I don’t know if anybody has ever documented the different kinds of soups or stews and all of that; so that is where our richness lies, and that’s where God’s endowment in our lives is.

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And for Synergos, I don’t know whether the organisation will be doing diversity if I wasn’t Country Director, but I know that Synergos wants collaboration, and essentially we can exchange the titles for each other. Yes, diversity it is and you know we took a risk in our Diversity Dialogue programme on Tuesday, November 16. We could have had a session where someone could have thrown some verbal bombs that could have got people in a conflicted way, but what you saw were people thirsty for the opportunity to discuss with each other and find the way forward.  And I think this is where we have not had the bridging leadership in this country, because the people who create the climate of dislike, of scarcity, of people against each other, have dominated the public space, politically and otherwise. I just felt very strongly that if we could start, not in a political way but in a space where we start to have these dialogues, then we might become closer to what we can do. And that is also why we reached out to the National Orientation Agency to see whether they will collaborate with us. And thankfully, even though the director was not present, they gave some support.

PT: How much of a perspective do you see an understanding of diversity having in fixing Nigerian agriculture? 

Ajadi: Let’s take a state like Benue, which has at least five ethnic groups and we work there: Imagine, if we could get the herdsmen and the farmers to start collaborating in using the animal manure that is produced to fertilise their farms. And the herdsmen being able to take the fallow vegetation that the farmers might want to get rid of – there is a wonderful opportunity there. This is why when one looks at the cassava peels factories, because we are looking at: How is it that we mediate this tension? That is an example. I know, based on anecdotal evidence, that we have in Ekiti State people already taking yam and plantain out for years to Ghana as export.

If you take the South-west states and you got a more conducive environment, there is a way that can be a source of incredible income for these states. In the South-east, you can talk about very special plants that are medicinal, that are almost exclusive to that zone, that can be manufactured into unique products. But all of these things are only possible in an environment where people are aspiring to make progress on the basis of their creativity and productivity.

It is not a space where people are trying to make progress on the basis of: it’s my man that is at the top, let’s queue behind him and get a few naira. So it is about a space whereby there is merit, it is meritocratic and there is collaboration. If we have conflict, which is inevitable in any space, not to even talk about a diverse space, we would have a language of engaging that conflict in order for us to be able to produce excellence out of it eventually.

PT: What are the next stages in your work on the State Partnership for Agriculture and how do you intend scaling up the project from the present limited pilot states?

Ajadi: A bit of that is dependent on what the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation decides, but I can tell you that we have states we are already talking to and I would not want to mention their names or put them on the spot. But we are talking to some state, especially states that are priorities for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. We have also developed a dashboard that captures the critical elements of this prototype, so we can look through the dashboard and know which states have these qualities and capacities – the policy capacities and marketing positions, the investment plans, etc. That’s the second part.

The third part is that for the states we are working on, we are… The thing that attracted me to Synergos is the fact that it is about a collaborative approach on the ground, it is about the participation of the people. So we have in every state, a structure of stakeholders participating in the governance design and delivery of what we do. And so essentially we are in the last year of this pilot to work to ensure those people too become the leaders and to have the capacity to take the work forward.  So, in Kaduna State, the women that are working on ginger are also in our AVG (Agriculture Vision Group), and the farmers that are working on maize are also in the AVG and AIG (Agriculture innovation Group), and they have to deliver the capacity to ensure collaboration in their own networks to ensure that they have an understanding of the policy context; that they have the bridging leadership to take things forward; that they have also identified markets and places where there are pressure points that could be opened up. And they are constantly in conversation with government.

Just to illustrate some things: We also have factories that we would set up; so we got a factory for cassava peels in Kogi and Benue States. We have got a yam-conditioning centre in Makurdi; we are developing a ginger-conditioning centre in Kaduna. So we are leaving a rich place, assuming that we have to move on to other things. The capacity for people to take these things forward and build on the track up we have. But the thing about Nigeria that makes Synergos and Nigeria very complementary of each other is the complexity issue. Nigeria is a very complex space and because we have never developed the capacity to deal with complexity and we have not had the patience to leverage our diversity, Synergos has some of the critical tools, so the organisation is not a project based NGO like that; it is process based. It’s collaborative, it’s creative, and it’s all the things that can work massively for Nigeria. And I say this not as the Country Director of Synergos, because I’m not always going to be the Country Director of Synergos. But to declare that because of these kinds of things, there is the basis, there is the foundation for Synergos to work on health, and on all the other areas, and help in the way it is done in Namibia, which is the way it is done in Ethiopia, and in the way it continues to be in Brazil, and in all complex countries, to South Africa on social inclusion. There is this ability to help people to engage how we come together to make more than the sum of their parts, and this is what harnessing diversity is about, and this is what Synergos is about.

I feel that the opportunities are there, and only the future will be able to tell how effective we are. A few days ago, we had a meeting with the vice president and he was extremely engaging, and extremely interested in what we are doing, and his staff were also engaging and extremely welcoming, which is great. I suspect that you all know the vice president is very insightful and very incisive in his role. We talked extensively well about the social inclusion agenda, and social platforms that are being built to support people across the country. What is fascinating today is to really just literally see where Synergos can play roles in things like that. So we are, I believe, here to stay; we are here through SPA to do that, and we also support the Federal Ministry of Agriculture, the Office of the Minister, so we have some play there. But essentially, in everything we do, the exit strategy is that it is the people that have to be more effective and will be become more effective rather than our organisation.

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