I am flying home from the first Grow Africa Investment Forum, held at the impressive new African Union Conference Centre in Addis Ababa. Never before have I been in a room with so many powerful people – Jean Ping, African Union Chair; Paul Kagame, President of Rwanda; Jakaya Kikwete, President of Tanzania; Meles Zenawi, Prime Minister of Ethiopia; Nick Blazquez, President, Diageo Africa; Doug McMillon, President, Walmart; Raj Shah, Administrator, USAID; Kanayo Nwanze, President, IFAD; and 270 other leaders from business, government and civil society.

And never before has a development initiative felt to melike a snowball rolling downhill gathering its own unstoppable momentum. Normally it feels like slogging uphill.

For the last 3 years Wasafiri has worked extensively on CAADP – Africa’s plan for transforming agriculture. CAADP has involved hard work for many people, but slow, steady progress has been made. Over half of African countries have developed detailed strategies, increased public sector investment, and elevated political commitment for their agricultural sector. However, Africa’s agricultural transformation ultimately depends on harnessing this foundational work to unlock a vibrant private sector that increases productivity, produces nutritious food, and creates wealth and employment. And until now CAADP has primarily been a public sector initiative with only token engagement by the private sector.

Just over a year ago I called a contact at the World Economic Forum to suggest we try connecting the world of CAADP, with their New Vision for Agriculture Initiative – a collaboration by the major food and agriculture companies to explore ways of addressing the world’s long-term food challenges. The basic concept proposed was to work with the domestic and international private sector to identify investment opportunities that would contribute to national agricultural plans developed under CAADP, and then advance them in partnership. Grow Africa was born and, pleasingly, I had the privilege to name it!

Grow Africa is now lauded by international leaders as a key mechanism for implementing CAADP and driving Africa’s agriculture transformation. Raj Shah (head of USAID) recently announced that Barack Obama and other G8 leaders are expected to add their public support at this week’s G8 Summit.  A year after conception, Grow Africa acts as a partnership platform to accelerate investments, catalyse partnerships and share best practice. Co-ordinated by the African Union, NEPAD and the World Economic Forum, it is connecting governments, businesses, investors, farmers and development partners in order to advance ambitious agricultural partnership initiatives. A first wave of countries are engaged – Rwanda, Burkina Faso, Tanzania, Mozambique, Ghana, Kenya and Ethiopia – with more expected soon.

On 9th May, the first Grow Africa Investment Forum was held in the margins of the WEF Africa Summit. Seven countries showcased investment opportunities aligned to their national priorities for agricultural transformation. Private sector leaders responded very positively, with major companies committing to advancing discussions on investment and partnership with the potential to unlock billions of dollars of investment. The event deepened trust and understanding between public and private sector leaders, and highlighted both challenges and innovations regarding how to unleash the private sector in transforming African agriculture.

Wasafiri believes that deep development challenges cannot be tackled by any single organisation. Systemic change depends upon multiple actors engaging in alignment to rework a failing system. Wasafiri’s work is in facilitating that alignment, and committing people to act in concert. Agriculture is so complex in this regard that the development community abandoned it for decades, choosing instead to focus on sectors such as health and education that are less market-based and diverse. As Raj Shah put it, “Agricultural transformation is a collective action problem”.

Grow Africa, building on the foundational work of CAADP, has suddenly reached a tipping point. Government, business and civil society are engaging together, targeting their efforts on specific areas of common interest, usually along a single value chain or geographical area. In one day at the Grow Africa Investment Forum their collective belief in change made a tangible leap forward. African agriculture shifted from being a problem, to an incredible opportunity – both commercially and in terms of development impact. Sensing this shift, some top politicians from Africa and the world are adding their endorsement, a simple leadership act that will exponentially increase everyone’s confidence and commitment to engaging in concert.

There is still a long way to go. Interest must get translated into investment, and investment into results. And there are obvious risks around ensuring investments are sustainable and inclusive – with complex issues around land, water, labour, smallholders, climate change, women, youth and governance. Nonetheless, it is thrilling to sense collective action generating incredible momentum for change, such that growing Africa is no longer a problem, it is a profound opportunity. Wasafiri is committed to continue serving Africa in its agricultural transformation.

Visit: www.growafrica.com (website managed by Wasafiri for AUC, NEPAD and WEF)

Watch live as Barack Obama and others speak about Grow Africa in the context of the G8 initiative.  8am EST/ 1pm BST to 5pm EST/ 10pm BST, 18th May 2012: http://www.livestream.com/thechicagocouncil