John Agwunobi (PhD) is the chairman of the Board of Directors of the US African Development Foundation (USADF) – an independent public corporation in the federal government of the United States, which supports African-led development. As chairman of the Foundation, Agwunobi oversees schemes that support community enterprises in Africa.
Trained in medicine, business administration and public health, Agwunobi has many years of experience in the US public service. His experience in varying positions has also made him one of the seasoned developmentalists in the US government. In this exclusive interview with TAMRAT G.GIORGIS, MANAGING EDITOR, Agwunobi discusses the activities of his foundation, which is not as popular in Africa as say USAID, and the challenges that the US is facing from emerging giants, such as China. Excerpts:
FORTUNE: Let me start from a personal question. Your background is public health and you spent some time in Florida, United States, and now you are leading one of the agencies that was formed to help Africans in business, smallholders and the wider community. What prompted you to take up this challenge?
Jon Agwunobi: I have a very personal kind of affinity for the work being done by the US-African Development Foundation (USADF). It is an amazing, albeit quite a small federal agency, which is working hard on the behalf of Sub-Saharan Africa.
But you are right, though. I do have a background in public health and this is not completely unrelated. If you think about it, there is a very strong relationship between agriculture and nutrition, and between nutrition and health. And, there is a very tight relationship between access to health and access to wealth.
Poverty and illness unfortunately go hand in hand. And so I have often thought this is an extension of my own personal mission. I serve on a team of expert individuals and I am one of many.
I don’t make decisions on my own, on behalf of the agency. There are groups of experts that have worked on African development for many years and a group of other experts that work with other US agencies and African countries and their leaders to try and further the causes we support. So, I am just one player on a team.
Q: It is interesting to see you in this Wall Street outfit out of the many uniforms you wear.
Yes, I have had the opportunity to serve the United States in many different ways. It is quite an honor.
Q: What were you looking to achieve when you took up this job? Because this is specifically about Africa and helping Africans, but not at a higher level. It is about working with communities on the ground.
There were a number of things. I think the mission of the Agency itself – the USADF – is really about lifting up those communities most in need. A focus on avoiding or seeking solutions to the barriers that are often there. I love the fact that the agency spends time trying hard to go directly to the communities.
The thing that I found most attractive was the fact that this is an agency that exclusively works with African owned and African operated entities on the ground. Women’s cooperatives in Rwanda, milk processing plants in Mauritania, wells for camels and cattle in Niger. These are the kinds of projects that I think are absolutely necessary in order for people to lift themselves out of the dire distress that they might be in.
Q: Your agency was established in 1980, but it is not as popular in Africa or across Africa as, say, USAID. Why is that?
I think one of the reasons we are not known is because we try to lead through the African enterprises and African leaders who are fighting for their own communities on the ground. We try to have cooperatives rise up themselves, with our job being to offer them technical assistance, providing them with seed funding and partnerships with local NGOs.
Not NGOs that we brought in from abroad, but NGOs that we found locally who can continue to build a relationship with them. Our emphasis is predominantly on empowering.
If you go to localities benefiting from our grants and most of the works we have done, you will see USADF being proudly promoted. But it is a minor preposition. It is not something we try lead with. We prefer to see the logo and flag of the community, when we visit those cooperatives, or that farm, or that well or that milk processing plant we supported.
Q: You have a physical presence in almost 19 African countries out of 53 and Ethiopian is not one of them. I was wondering what sort of criteria you employ when you decide to open an office. For instance, is there any prospect of opening an office in Addis Abeba?
We don’t actually open our own offices in any given countries. As I have said, we work through local partners and we work through their offices. We are small agency with limited funds and we could have been to many more places if we had access to more resources. We focus our resources where we found a population ready and willing to fight for themselves, economically by building cooperatives, processing plants or farms.
Specific to Ethiopia, we are here at this conference and a proud part of the president’s effort, Power Africa, because we believe the time is right. We have extended our reach for the first time really into the provision of off grid and micro grid energy, because we think that we can help so many people in this way.
Because of this wonderful umbrella – Power Africa – we are coming to Ethiopia, I think, for the first time. So I fully expect that in a year or two from now, we will have local partners. We will have partners that receive our support and, more importantly, communities that will use the help we provided to do for themselves what they wish, but could not. In this way we can help to lift them out of poverty.
Q: You work with the community on the ground in a very small way, to say the least. But considering Africa, a large continent with 800 million plus population, and considering the resources that you have, don’t you think whatever you are trying to achieve is rather a piecemeal approach?
It is an interesting observation. Unfortunately, I think it leaves out one of the core goals of our work – we do not provide enough to meet all of the need. Our hope is, thus, we provide ideas, models and wonderful things in communities that others can see, copy and follow. Our hope, ultimately, is that with the little money that we bring, we will be able to generate powerful models for future replication.
That is true for our work in agriculture, even more true for our work in Power Africa. In our efforts in off grid energy, which we call “USADF Off Grid Energy Challenge”, we hope to see lots of ideas competitively in a fair and transparent way. We then fund the very best. Not all the very best, but we can fund three; specifically, a hundred thousand dollars worth of each projects this year in Ethiopia.
Our hope is that they become a model of what you can do as a community, if you come together, stand-up and ask for help. It is not our intent to fund all the need. Our intent is to provide models that others can use.
Q: I think this off a grid and micro grid scheme is in its second round and there are six or seven Africa countries eligible for it, including Ethiopia. What sort of expectation do you have from people interested in competing in this challenge?
Probably this is the most important question. This is the second round. The first round was last year, and we were learning how to do this ourselves. The USADF is learning how it can be helpful.
The first round is focused on just two countries, Nigeria and Kenya, and we learned how to be efficient in the process. In this second round, we expand to six African countries, Ethiopia being one of them. Our goal ultimately is that this will be an annual challenge in partnership with General Electric – a very large global company. And our goal hopefully is that we are doing what others will do as well in a future.
Ultimately, we are looking for Ethiopian-owned and Ethiopian-operated ideas and entrepreneurial opportunities. We are looking for individuals to bring these ideas to us. We put together independent panels of cross sectional people from the government, from the agency, from NGOs and others; we will ask them to review the proposal.
Then, we will fund some of them. But there might also be other partners of the foundation who find some of the ideas attractive for themselves to invest into.
The process will hopefully be done very quickly; it is our intent to put this money to work by September of this year. Next year, in the third cycle, we will go even faster.
Q: Will Ethiopians from the Diaspora, for instance in the US, be eligible if they come and participate?
Yes. So long as the company or the organisation itself is clearly connected to the local community here on the ground or has the ability to impact rural communities. Our mandate is African-owned and African-managed. It could be you as an entity forming a partnership with a company, or group or university from another country in Africa or from a country outside Africa.
Q: Your program is part of the Africa Energy Initiative, launched by President Barak Obama. But, as a member of the administration and comparing it to what China is trying to do in Africa, how do you evaluate your strategic position?
There is no one solution that solves all of the problems. Africa is a very big place. There is a great need and a very diverse need. Our sense is that it will take everyone and anyone with good ideas and good intent to lift the continent, the countries and the communities out of the state they find themselves in today.
I am very proud of the work the president put together. Power Africa is a unique preposition. I am very proud by the fact that within the Power Africa preposition, they didn’t forget the need to support rural communities and the small underserved. And I am extremely proud of the USADF’s work with the off grid energy challenge.
Q: The Chinese Prime Minister was right here in this conference hall about a month ago and he offered Africa 30 billion dollars for the next five years. When you compare that with what the US government is offering Africa, about seven billion dollars, why do you think Africa should be enthusiastic about the US anymore?
I think it is a little short sighted to see this advance as a snap shot. The work that the US, President Obama and the USADF do in the continent, with those leaders and those communities, is an ongoing process. It is not a snap shot, it is a long running video. We will continue to support our partners on the ground over time. This is just one more step on a long journey of being partners with our African friends and colleagues. In some cases they are families. I am half African heritage myself. I recognise this is a long term relationship. I think it is little short sighted to measure things from where we are now. I would like you to ask me that question in 20 years from now.
I am proud of the work the US has done in supporting our African partners. I think you will find that, overtime, we will be there by your side fighting the thing you believe in, in every way we can.
Q: What Africans need, which everybody seems agree, is public infrastructure that somehow prompts economic development. The Chinese are playing a very relevant role here because they provide all the resources without the ifs and buts. In this context, where do you see the US government’s leverage to deal with Africans?
I like to think everybody’s work is important. I am uniquely proud of the work that the President is doing in Power Africa. I think the initiative is part of a long-term vision. This effort, I hope, will continue n the long-term. I hope the efforts in the future will also be accounting the needs of Africans on the ground. And it will rightly be owned and operated by Africans themselves, with us supporting as partners.
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