Borlaug Legacy Symposium
It is an honour to be a part of this symposium to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the birth of Dr. Norman Borlaug, a Nobel Laureate and the chairman of the Sasakawa Africa Association until his passing in 2009. And I am more than delighted that Norman’s beloved daughter and granddaughter, Jeanie and Julie, have graced us with their presence here today.
My relationship with Norman goes back 30 years, to a time when an unprecedented famine was devastating a number of African countries, most notably Ethiopia. Humanitarian aid poured in from all over the world, saving lives that would have otherwise been lost. The Nippon Foundation, guided by its fundamental principle that “The world is one family, all mankind are brothers and sisters,” immediately sent emergency food aid to help our ailing brothers and sisters in Africa. However, as effective as these emergency measures were, it was clear to me that they were not long-term solutions. To prevent another famine from devastating its people, Africa needed to find a sustainable solution for its food challenges.
This is what led my father, Ryoichi Sasakawa, who was the Chairman of The Nippon Foundation at the time, and me to establish the Sasakawa Africa Association, or SAA, in 1986 and to seek the support of Dr. Norman Borlaug and former US President Jimmy Carter. President Carter embraced the initiative right away but Dr. Borlaug, who was 73 years old at the time, hesitated. He said, “I’ve retired and I’m too old to start again.” To this, my father replied, “I’m 13 years older than you. We should have started much sooner so let’s start tomorrow!” And this is how our journey in Africa began to take on one of the most difficult challenges of humanity: Ending hunger.
From the outset, numerous challenges had to be addressed: basic agronomic practices needed to be adopted; the feeble government extension services in most African countries at the time had to be strengthened; and agricultural development needed to gain higher priority in government policies. Facing up to these issues was a daunting task, but Norman stood up to the challenge. He was not the kind of man to flinch or give up halfway. No matter how difficult the situation, he would always smile and say to me, “Yohei, we must never give up.”
He never strayed from this attitude, even at the end of his life when he was suffering from cancer. It was apparent that he no longer had the physical strength to spend weeks out in the field as he had done before. Despite such trying circumstances, he put the people of Africa first. There was a time when we were out in the field and Norman was coughing uncontrollably. Many of us told him he should end the trip early and take some rest, but being a fearless fighter, he refused and soldiered on, telling us, “The place for me is out here on the frontlines.”
In the two decades that Norman led the SAA, we set up Sasakawa Global 2000 programs in 14 countries in the African continent. We have worked with tens of thousands of extension workers and helped to train more than 4,000 of them, at 20 African universities. Most importantly, through our programs we have touched the lives of millions of Africa’s smallholder farmers.
When I say “touched,” I mean the hearts and souls of African farmers. Norman’s contribution went beyond imparting plowing and planting techniques. He believed in the untapped potential of Africa’s smallholder farmers. Working side by side in the fields, Norman not only helped the farmers to increase their yields, but he also succeeded in planting the seeds of confidence into their hearts. This humanitarian approach became the core value of all who worked under him and continues to be at the foundation of the SAA.
Today, the Sasakawa Africa Association is an organization made up of a dynamic team of men and women who represent twelve different nationalities, mainly from Africa. Led by the strong leadership of Professor Ruth Oniang’o, the organization’s current focus is on the four African countries Ethiopia, Mali, Nigeria, and Uganda. Carrying on in the spirt of Norman Borlaug, the SAA is working with its expanding list of partner organizations to contribute to the sustainable development of agriculture in Africa.
So, in the words of Dr. Norman Borlaug, let us “Take it to the farmer.” Let us continue down the path that this great man has set before us. And in his spirit of “never give up,” let us renew our commitments to work side by side with the farmers of Africa to help improve their lives and ensure that no child will ever go to bed hungry.