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The path to a fair future for the “people behind our plates”

4 questions with IFAD president Gilbert F. Houngbo on strategies for rural communities

Landowner Mariama Jarju harvests with her farm workers in Aljamdou village, Gambia. ©IFAD/Nana Kofi Acquah
27 May 2021
27 May 2021

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Developing new ways to end hunger and poverty is all in a day’s work for Gilbert F. Houngbo. Now in his second term as president of the UN International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), Houngbo’s mission is to create a better future for the 45 percent of the global population who depend on their rural farms to earn their livelihoods and feed not only themselves but also the world through the food that they grow.

But perhaps no one understands the realities of life in rural landscapes better than Houngbo. Growing up in rural Togo, Houngbo’s parents were firmly dedicated to food production as their means to pay for their children’s educations, and Houngbo moved to the capital at the young age of 11 to finish his schooling – an experience he credits with building the character he needed to get to where he is today. His astounding career now spans more than a decade in the private sector followed by numerous positions at the UN Development Programme, serving as deputy director-general of the International Labour Organization and spending a term as the Togolese prime minister.

Here, he discusses the way forward for rural populations and how their future can be one of technological connectivity, economic prosperity and true empowerment.

Gilbert F. Houngbo, president of the UN International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD).
 ©IFAD/FAO/WFP/Michael Tewelde

How can rural people have a greater voice to advocate for their wants and needs?

Rural people want to build dignified lives for their families. They want to earn a decent income from their work and offer their children opportunities to achieve their dreams – just like any other family around the world. But often they earn too little to nutritiously feed their children or provide them with education. About 80 percent of the world’s poorest people live in rural areas, mostly working in agriculture.

With access to agricultural advice and training, to markets to sell their products, to financial services to save, borrow and invest, and to simple but effective technologies, they can increase their productivity, diversify their production, set up small and medium-sized agribusinesses and get out of poverty.

National producers’ organizations, smaller farmers’ groups and cooperatives, and organizations of women and Indigenous peoples can be powerful voices to advocate for their own causes, and IFAD works with them to strengthen their capacities and performance. At a more global level, the Farmers’ Forum is also a strong bottom-up process of consultation and dialogue between organizations of rural producers from all over the world and IFAD and its Member States. With the Food Systems Summit conveyed by the UN Secretary General in September, it is now a crucial time for them to have their voices heard. IFAD is facilitating a process for them to host their own independent dialogues to contribute to the Summit’s consultations.

In Mali, IFAD has partnered with World Agroforestry (ICRAF) to help local populations regenerate endangered native species and introduce varieties that are better adapted to hotter, drier conditions. ©IFAD/Amadou Keita
In Mali, IFAD has partnered with World Agroforestry (ICRAF) to help local populations regenerate endangered native species and introduce varieties that are better adapted to hotter, drier conditions. ©IFAD/Amadou Keita

You recently stepped into your second term as IFAD president in February. How did the past year of a pandemic shape your strategy and vision for your second term?

The pandemic is a wake-up call. It has exacerbated vulnerabilities and inequalities that existed before, and it has drawn millions more people into poverty. We all need to drastically scale up our efforts to end hunger and poverty and address their root causes. At IFAD we are determined to double our impact by 2030 and help 40 million small-scale farmers increase their incomes every year.

The pandemic has also made us acutely aware of the vulnerabilities of our food systems and the urgency to transform them so that they are sustainable and equitable. The people behind our plates – the rural populations producing, transforming and transporting our food – must earn a decent income from their work.

But it is not only about the pandemic. It is also climate change that is already affecting rural populations. We know that more frequent and violent natural disasters will happen. We also know that lands are being degraded leading to a decline in biodiversity. It is fundamental to build the resilience of rural populations through more diversified livelihoods, a wider use of scientific, technological and traditional knowledge and market information for agriculture, and more climate resilient crops and practices. To that end, IFAD also aims to catalyze significant climate financing to rural areas. This is why we are also now partnering with the Great Green Wall initiative. We bring our 40-year experience which shows that it is possible to regreen Sahelian areas and also improve food security and create economic opportunities for rural populations.

Innovative digital solutions are also key. We saw how some small agribusinesses turned the pandemic into an opportunity to reach even more customers on digital platforms. Services via mobile phones, such as the delivery of agricultural advice, can reach millions more farmers than existing in-person extension services. Access to information, markets and financial services via phones or digital platforms are fundamental.

Kamara Ponontio Jeanne, president of the Ivory Coast Food Producers Network in a conversation with tomato merchants at the Plateau wholesale market in Abidjan. ©Arnaud Thierry Gouegnon
Kamara Ponontio Jeanne, president of the Ivory Coast Food Producers Network in a conversation with tomato merchants at the Plateau wholesale market in Abidjan. ©Arnaud Thierry Gouegnon

This year, IFAD ambitiously aims to increase the incomes of 20 million poor small-scale food producers by 20 percent while ensuring gender equity. How will it accomplish this?

This is a crucial year. Now, more than ever, we need to prioritize a more sustainable recovery from the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, safeguard food supplies and ensure that the rural poor are not left behind. IFAD’s Rural Poor Stimulus Facility was set up to help vulnerable countries to ensure their rural producers can keep producing and selling food this year, despite pandemic impacts and restrictions.

Through our programs, which are developed in close collaboration with governments and rural communities, we focus on increasing food production sustainably through activities such as training in better farming practices, the use of improved seeds, and access to irrigation. Our work to help raise incomes includes improving market access, training in entrepreneurship, and small business development. We also support small-scale farmers, including Indigenous communities, to adapt to climate change, restore lands and preserve biodiversity.

At the same time, gender empowerment is a cornerstone of the work we do, and this is essential for the development of rural communities. Rural women have fewer rights to the land they work, limited opportunities for education, and less access to financing and inputs to farm successfully. Our projects help rural women gain access to the resources they need to improve their lives and assets and to set up their own income-generating activities. With this kind of support – and I have personally seen this during my visits to IFAD projects – women thrive, take on leadership positions, earn more, and create a better future for themselves and their families.

For the people living in the Sahel region of Mali, climate change is an undeniable reality that has seen the past decades become increasingly hot and dry. ©IFAD/Amadou Keita
For the people living in the Sahel region of Mali, climate change is an undeniable reality that has seen the past decades become increasingly hot and dry. ©IFAD/Amadou Keita

What values from your upbringing in a large rural family do you still carry with you and apply to your work today?

Growing up in rural Togo, I understood and learned the value of community, education and a belief in the importance of hard work. As children, we knew what our responsibilities were – getting enough water for the house before going to school and helping clean up the classrooms and compound after school. Having to do your share of duty is ingrained from childhood.

I see my position as head of IFAD as a platform to raise awareness about the importance of supporting small-scale farmers and rural communities and to significantly catalyze investments to these rural areas to trigger the needed change. What I would like to see is poor rural communities getting a fair deal, getting their share of investments so that the small-scale food producers and their families have access to quality education and health services, water and sanitation, electricity and information, and communications technology – particularly, the Internet. Young people need to see a positive future for themselves in rural communities; otherwise the pull to migrate to urban areas and beyond will continue.

The International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) is an international financial institution and United Nations specialized agency based in Rome. It invests in rural people, empowering them to reduce poverty, increase food security, improve nutrition and strengthen resilience. Since 1978, it has reached an estimated 518 million people.


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