S1E6: Idris Elba: Food for Thought

May 18, 2022
In this episode of Creative Development, IFC Managing Director Makhtar Diop sits down with Idris Elba ― actor, producer, humanitarian and UN Goodwill Ambassador for the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD). Together, they discuss the importance of agricultural investment in Africa and the plight of smallholder farmers.

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In this episode of Creative Development, IFC Managing Director Makhtar Diop sits down with Idris Elba ― actor, producer, humanitarian and UN Goodwill Ambassador for the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD). Together, they discuss the importance of agricultural investment in Africa and the plight of smallholder farmers. This wide-ranging discussion about social justice enterprises and causes includes first-hand perspectives on the potential of the creative industry.

Episode Highlights


Makhtar Diop (MD): Hi, and welcome to the podcast, Creative Development with IFC. I am your host Makhtar Diop. My guest today is Idris Elba. And we are talking about rural development, food security and creative industries to improve livelihoods in Africa.

Idris Elba (IE): Makhtar, it's so great to actually meet you for the first time having known a lot about you. I'm honestly honored to have an opportunity to speak with you today.

MD: Hi Idris, the honor is mine. You have impacted so many people in the world that so many people are admiring your work. And it's a huge pleasure to be able to be with you today and have this conversation. And I would like to kick off with something which is really very important for you and for all of us. You have been doing a fantastic job being an IFAD [UN Goodwill Ambassador for IFAD] Ambassador, and you have even more. You are looking at farmers in Sierra Leone, you are looking at farmers in West Africa. Where is [your] passion for agriculture coming from?

IE: Makhtar, thank you, Sabrina and I… Sabrina's from Somalia, myself from Sierra Leone and Ghana, you know, and both those countries have seen their fair share of deprivation, poverty, drought, and one of the key things that I think that both of us share is that we believe very much [that] to help people is not just about giving charity, it's about giving them systems. And the first thing that strikes you about certain parts of Africa is that hunger is a reality every day. It's a reality that people face in their day-to-day lives, things that we take for granted in the West, or wherever, in certain very rural parts of Africa, where the only thing they have is the soil, and they're still hungry. Both Sabrina and I think we fell in love with this knowledge of each other knowing that, that should change, some things should change. And when you go to these places, you know, during the day, the sunlight’s bright, everybody's bright, but when it starts to get dark, that's when you really realize how silent these people are. Because during the day when they can look for food, the sun is up, but when the sun goes down and they're still hungry, that's when you realize the actual hunger is there. I've been working in my industry for a long time, and I have this opportunity to be a beacon for voices that do not have that. You know, when the sun goes down, who speaks for them? So that's where Sabrina and I felt that working with IFAD would really amplify the problem, you know, and for Africa, if we can feed ourselves, we can survive and we can grow. For me, it's a simple formula. So just amplifying the plight of agriculture and smallholder farmers, who by the way are responsible for 60% of the rest of the world's food. It's like, how can we ignore that? I remember, people will ask me this question, why agriculture interests you? You’re this movie star, what's up with farming? Like, you know, I'm not a farmer myself. I love my vegetables. And I'm thankful. But I'm thankful for the food I eat because I know where it's grown. And the people that are growing it are not heard. They're marginalized. In fact, they're more hungry than I am. So that's why Sabrina and I chose to work with IFAD. And IFAD have done incredible work without much publicity and look, the UN Goodwill Ambassadors tend to have a lot of shine and bounce and a lot of you know, promotion, but agriculture not so much. And because agriculture is a cornerstone of Africa's development, it's important to me as an African to raise that.

MD: I'm hearing two things, Idris, from what you just said. You can have a strong voice but it doesn't need to be loud. You have just demonstrated that a strong voice is a voice which is talking and supporting the voiceless. It is actually what I heard from what you said. And the voiceless are often those who are helping us to live the way we are living. But they are not receiving the share they should be receiving. So, I think that what you're doing is just so commendable. So impressive, you and Sabrina. I visited Somalia many times, and I see exactly what you're talking about: when it’s dark, when you have no electricity, when you are hungry, when the children are crying, it takes you somewhere that brings the responsibilities that you have to address it. But you have not only talked about it, but you are acting on it, which is more important. And you have been talking about in the world, and you're working now. And you're talking about working with people in Sierra Leone, around the cocoa industry, what are the things you can do in that space?

IE: You know, my understanding of the cocoa industry in Sierra Leone echoes the plight of some of the larger cocoa farming countries. The plight being that they're marginalized and the cocoa is practically stolen by larger companies who seem to take advantage of these farmers. Now in Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire, they've had a coalition to try and raise that so the cocoa is fairly traded. But in the smaller farmers, the smaller cocoa industry, smaller distributors, they don't have the same power, so they are taken advantage of at a much lesser scale, but equally as unfair. So in Sierra Leone, my family and I have created something we call Akuna Cocoa which is essentially my middle name, and it's a small coalition. IFAD have been very supportive of trying to help me construct a system that replicates that of Ghana and Cote d'Ivoire, that helps smallholder farmers.

And you know, it'd be really fascinating to hear, if I don't mind throwing the question back to you, how someone like myself, who is a small private investor with a good ambition, can attract other investors to feel the same. You know, I just want to understand how when IFAD, you know, people don't know too much about IFAD and its goals, but they have me, I'm a private and I'm Sierra Leonean, and I'm looking at the cocoa industry. How can I invest? How can I bring more people to look at that?

MD: Exactly. We have been working very closely with IFAD. At some point, I was Vice President for Africa at the World Bank. And during that time, actually, a few of my colleagues went and worked for IFAD. And we had a lot of agreement on technical assistance, because I have a lot of technical knowledge in this area. So  at that time, I had an opportunity to work closely with the Ghanaian and Ivorian authorities. And actually, we organized a meeting with the late Prime Minister of Cote d'Ivoire and the Minister of Ghana. And the question was: you are representing the two countries with 60 percent of the world production, you have some things that you can do to have your market much more integrated, and work on farmer prices and have a much bigger bargaining power when it comes to price and export. And that's a little bit the contribution that we are at a time to bring the two countries together and think jointly. I think that you are perfectly right, that it needs to be expanded now to a neighboring country, and Sierra Leone, which has the same ecosystems, the same system in terms of climatic conditions could be really integrated. What we can do, and we will do [is have] another follow up right after our conversation. We have an Advisory team, which comes and looks at the situation in this country, makes a quick assessment of what are the constraints, what is the problem, what needs to be fixed, what needs to be done. And after, our team working on equity comes and looks at an entity we can take equity or make loans and work with them. We also know the way of doing it, which is to bring a credit line to a bank and say we would like you to focus on this particular sector. So what we can do, Idris, following the meeting is to have our team–we call it Upstream–which can come and sit with you and other people working in Sierra Leone in the cocoa industry and see what it will take just to take it to the next step. And we can follow up after this conversation.

IE: That would be incredible. And what an incredible point of action. You know, I think that you know, we planned to go to COP in Egypt and you know from this conversation, I think it would be so inspiring to see that, from this opportunity, our innovation, as you know, two gentlemen with positions of a voice, and power in your case, can create something because I think that's part of it, you know, when they see, when people see Africans working together in an innovative, and a modern way, I think it encourages others. So I'm so excited about what you've said and that opportunity.

MD: I love it because COP27 is around the corner. And we will be all focusing on it. And a lot of the meetings in the last two weeks during our Spring Meetings were on COP27. And I think that it's a good benchmark, let's try to do something before October 27. That's a good challenge. And I will try to take this challenge.

MD: Well, you know, Idris, it is not only about agriculture, your focus on voiceless and people who are less endowed is all about what you are doing. I read about your initiative: Don't Stab Your Future. Talking about people using knives. Where does it come from that initiative? Is it something that you have seen friends being a victim of this type of violence, or it came from another experience?

IE No, thank you for asking. You know, Don’t Stab Your Future came from a very frustrating rant that I did on social media, where I saw a young girl senselessly killed outside of a club, she was 16 years old, maybe younger, and she was knifed to death. And on social media, I said, literally do not stab your own future. And this became the emblem for my activism in that space. And the reason why it touched me so much, and of course, I've got children, and I, you know, don't want to see anything happen to my own children. But I can only imagine how a parent must feel lost and misguided when a child is taken at the hands of another child, which is what the case is, you know. And, you know, I felt that this was something that even myself born and raised in England, I avoided you know, kids like me, even Stephen Lawrence, the famous young man whose mother now is Dame Doreen Lawrence, who's been fighting against this, he was the same age as I was, maybe a little younger, and his life was cut short. So I could have been him. And my contribution to this world would not be here. But that said, you know, it also highlights, especially over the last two, three years, it's been really amplified, that the kids have, young people have a disconnect, okay, they might be on their phones, but they are disconnected from ambition. They're disconnected from empathy. They're disconnected from guidance from adults, you know, and all of this is also entwined into this ever shifting world where I grew up, it takes a village to raise a child, I grew up in that environment. And that has been eroded now. People aren't allowed to say to a child, hey, you mustn't do that. You're not allowed. The environment is not encouraging of that for various reasons. But what that is left, is a lot of kids with no real guidance. And that leads to this perpetual problem of kids turning to gangs for comfort, and gangs turning to violence. But you know, for me, what I'm also demonstrating is that with this activism, you can make change by talking to children, you know, you can get on your knees, stand down and say: This is what we can do, let me help you. But you do have to make the effort. And so just by, you know, my small initiative, and what I do is I use a donate scheme, I sell t-shirts, and I donate to organizations. That ideology is a similar one that I think when we talk about African again, hey, I'm gonna get on my knees and say: You know what, here's a fishing rod. Here's a spade, here's a seed, you can change your own future, you know, and  that's the ideology behind it, really. And I found that it not only has it been received well and appreciated, but it is making change. And I'm seeing other people starting to say: Hey, I've got a voice, I've got a job. I've got a company, I can do the same. And I think that's the narrative I'm trying to push.

MD: You know, when people learn more about you and discover some of the sides that they don't know, the question becomes he's just so talented. And he's so dedicated. Let me just ask you about creative industry. You are one of the more famous actors that we have on the planet–one of the most famous actors. And you talked earlier about the impact of creative industry not only in more developed countries, but also in developing countries. You said when we were talking earlier that for you, you are seeing huge power for change coming from this. Tell me a little bit, what are your ideas in that area? Because this is something I also strongly believe. And I would like my organization IFC, to really engage in this area and do more. What advice do you give?

IE Well,I'm gonna start by, you know, saying thank you for the compliments, but little do many people know that the Managing Director of the IFC is also an artist and a musician and a great jazz player. And he didn't think I'd tell them, but I'm gonna tell them because I think it's important. I think it's important to understand that you know, the arts is an incredible gift that we have. The idea that we can imagine something that is not there and make it into reality is almost like magic. It is magic, in fact, and it is an instrument of change. When you look back, the instrument of change has already led with the creative mind, it was not there, we imagined it, and we put it forward. So that's no different from where we are at this juncture. And when we look at an emerging, I say, emerging economy in Africa, loosely, but we look at the emerging economy or opportunity in Africa and the creative industry, it is actually probably the most incorruptible industry, because of that very idea that it comes from within. And if it comes from within, it can only go, you know, to where it's intended, in my opinion, you know, people typically don't make creativity for money. It's a gift. But we can embroil it in infrastructure, we can embroil it in a facility and procedures that actually create jobs, create value, create a sense of pride. Because right now, when Africans look at images of themselves on Western TVs, it's typically images that are one of poverty. So how do we expect Africans to say, “Hey, I'm proud of what I am,” unless we change the narrative. So when we watch the Nigerian filmmakers in turn these beautiful opulent tales of caution and such, it's to teach, it's to really teach. So for me, it's so important. I've spent 30 years as an actor, and I feel that I've contributed to the shift of how black men are viewed in film. I wouldn't say I'm the only one. I say there are a lot of great actors, that are black men, that have contributed to shifting how we are viewed in the media, to the point where we have, you know, people like yourself, people like Gilbert [Houngbo] from IFAD, people like Barack Obama, who are also emblems of change. And the creative sector can amplify that with the film, with the music, with the job opportunities. I feel that for me, one of my ideas is to really sync the mobile telecom communication industry, much more with the film and music industry. It's done here already: streaming, everybody consumes films on their phones. But we know in Africa that, you know, although we're still largely on a 3G network, people consume an awful lot on their phones, and those who have smartphones, it's their lifeline. It's where they receive money. It's where they pay money. It's where they watch movies as well. So that connectivity where the creative industry can be right in the palm of the hand of a consumer, that could be really well invested, planned out and structured. For me, that's one of the big goals. I would like to have a facilities building that starts with education, all the way to studios across Africa. And underneath that is an ecosystem that puts the films that we make in the palms of the hands of those that have the phones and such. I wish if I had the opportunity to build the same system that made American film great, which is the cinema, the old fashioned cinema. For us, when the old pa would sit under a tree and tell stories and everybody was under the tree, that's where we learned. It's not as different from the cinema. So if I could, I would find a way to make cinema going in Africa accessible so people can go and watch themselves, watch the national movies, use them as educational facilities, learn so they can sit and congregate, and dream.

MD: You touched [on] so many points. The issue of streaming is so real. And the process now more and more is to be data centers in the continent. Because currently this lack of data centers on the continent [means] the information has to flow to a more advanced country, go to a server there or the data center and come back to countries. So it creates latencies that are more expensive. So more and more what people have been thinking now is to develop local content, put it on some data center and develop regional loops. So that the data center which is in Nigeria can send information directly to consumers, which are in Sierra Leone, on a 3G or 4G Mobile. The second one, which has evolved a lot, is compression. As you know, the compression of it. So I think that bringing all that in Africa, and it's happening, I think it's just trying to bring them together, there's so much creativity on the continent. There are so many talented young people. And you and I, when we go there, that’s what strikes us the most. All these kids, if they were, given an opportunity to be able to express the talent to contribute as much as they could. That can be just marvelous, and I think that that's why I really would like to have your wisdom, your advice, to guide us in our journey, because you have done what very few people in the world have done in terms of  the movie industry. And also, as you said, in the image of what a player, Sidney Poitier, you are one of them. Just incidentally, one of the first movies I watched when I was a kid was actually the French version of the Sidney Poitier movie, it was called in French, Devine qui vient dîner, and your movies, as well, are impacting my children the same way as those movies impacted me when I was younger.

IE: Okay, that's good. I appreciate that. That's good. I think that's a key factor. You said if we can impact these young people with stories that inspire them, I think there's a real good chance that the next generation will have a lot more confidence in their self image, confidence, especially the diaspora. You know, if the diaspora can see images of Africa that are enticing, that they've got to promote business, that promote development, that promote wealth and an abundance of pride, they will come home, they will come home and invest. And we see that in pockets. You know, we see that in Ghana and Nigeria. I think that's part of the narrative.

MD: Idris, going back to agriculture, which is your big passion. I think that the current food crisis that you are facing, is also giving an opportunity to the subcontinent and I'm really trying to push people on my team to think about it. In fact, cereals are not only wheat. Okay, it's not only wheat, we have millet, we have sorghum,  we have a lot of things which are growing on our continent. And I think that it will be an opportunity now to invest much more in this type of cereals, to increase the yield, to improve the quality, to see how we can invest to build the value chain, so that we have more production as the workers coming out from this crisis, to have more and more cereals coming from Africa and produce with small farmers from Africa to be part of the world's supply. And to have more millet, more sorghum, more things like that, that traditionally were coming from the continent. And one of the things I was saying, let's look at the story of quinoa. Quinoa was something which was 25 years ago just limited in Latin America and not known. Today, it is on the table of everybody. But I would like fonio which has a lot of similarity with Quinoa to become something like that. Yes. So this is also one of the journeys that I would like usto do together and I would love to do that puzzle.

IE: Yes,I would love that. I think it would be, you know, an incredible message in terms of, you know, my work in IFAD. You know, they're very encouraging in finding innovative solutions, you know, and obviously, you know, with your power and quite frankly, your incredible experience in approaching a problem and creating a solution in your various devices and jobs that you've done. I think that's where the power between what IFAD and yourself could do and also, what Sabrina and I bring in terms of that amplification in the messaging, and I think that would be really great, it's something that we would love to see happen more. We had an opportunity to speak to Macron. He was in his previous term and his response to us ended up in a larger pledge. So we know that, you know, this innovation of thinking is actually really good and is good for you know, innovation like that where we target a smallholder farmer, or we target a sector within that, be it cocoa, be it fonio. And we, we do something about it, I think that, you know, from this conversation, I'm so excited about the opportunities.

MD: I'm so excited. I'm such a big admirer of what Sabrina and you are doing, I think you are a force of change. And I think as you say that working together from a different angle. By the way, I don't deserve half of the nice things that Idris said about me. Okay, I am very far from what he said. But I think that it is just bringing so much energy to see that you know, together and your humility and how you are humble looking at this is just, I think a source of inspiration to a lot of people who will be listening to it. I've been watching you all along these years. Just know that IFC, the organization I'm leading, will be one of your strong partners. And myself personally, I would be very honored to be one of the larger group of people that you think can together work with you to contribute in changing the situation for the poorest of this world. It would be my honor to work on agriculture, on creative industry, and other areas. But more generally, as you say, to have these big meetings where we can bring some people around the table, have a nice conversation, increase awareness and lead to actions that we can implement together. I just want to say a big thank you, really Idris, for taking the time to join us today in this conversation.

IE: The honor is mine. And you know, I want to say for the benefit of the listeners, this conversation genuinely has inspired and changed my life. And I don't mean to be dramatic. I am an actor after all. But you know, Makhtar, I think that this has solidified my faith that we do have comrades on the continent that understand and that are good people, good energy, and that have had the capabilities. And you know, I'm so thankful for this conversation. Thank you so much. It's great speaking to you.

MD: Thank you for listening. Creative Development with IFC is produced by Aida Holly-Nambi and Maeve Frances for IFC. If you enjoyed this episode, please share it with your networks and tell a friend.