Ethical leadership for Africa’s Agriculture Development

An Afrian woman inspects plants growing in a high-density indoor facility

In a crisis, people call out for strong, ethical leadership. The world is now dealing with the decisions that leaders have made that have led to deep inequities in accessing the COVID-19 vaccines. Leaders from high income countries acted quickly to galvanize scientific energies and resources for vaccine development but have acted unethically in hindering global access to the vaccines. The result according to the World Health Organization is that less than two per cent of adults are fully vaccinated in most low-income countries compared to almost 50 per cent in high‑income nations. When leaders act unethically, people die. 

African leaders have made serious and complex value choices in the last year while dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic – choicesthat have impacted agriculture development and the security of our food systems. The 2021 Africa Agriculture Trade Monitor showed that about 50% of African countries shut their borders during this time, each ostensibly looking after their own health security interests. Cross border intra-African trade was forbidden, a large share of which is informal and conducted by individual traders. Many of these affected traders lost their livelihoods as this trade is especially sensitive to border-crossing restrictions. Paradoxically, the same measures that African leaders have taken to react quickly and curb the spread of COVID-19 have adversely impacted African agricultural trade and livelihoods.  It appears that the instinct in times of crisis such as we have been facing with the pandemic is to hunker down and turn inward. We need ethical leadership – in both high-income and lower income countries – to guide and model in reaching out beyond ourselves to collaborate.

What is ethical leadership? According to Treviño, Hartman, and Brown (2000), ethical leadership constitutes three important components: the personal integrity of the leader, also termed the ‘moral person’ component of ethical leadership; the extent to which a leader can cultivate integrity among his or her followers, and the quality of the leader-follower relationship. “Ethical leaders are characterized as honest, caring, and principled individuals who make fair and balanced decisions. Ethical leaders also frequently communicate with their followers about ethics, set clear ethical standards and use rewards and punishments to see that those standards are followed. Finally, ethical leaders do not just talk a good game— they practice what they preach and are proactive role models for ethical conduct.” (Brown &Trevino, 2006:597). Ethical leadership is also linked to ‘transformational leadership’ which has a greater emphasis on vision, values, and intellectual stimulation. It differs from ethical leadership in terms of moral management, where the leader sets the moral standard and actively holds followers accountable to that standard.  As program lead at AGRA’s new Centre for African Leaders in Agriculture (CALA), I spend a lot of time thinking about these kinds of leadership and how they can impact agriculture development in Africa.

The challenge we were faced with is that the agriculture sector has many technical experts and doctorates in every sub-field of specialization that one can imagine, and yet there have been serious challenges with the implementation of national agriculture priority programs which are typically 5-10 years long. If the leaders have the technical capabilities, resources, and even the right political climate, then what explains the challenge impeding delivery of their commitments to the development of the sector? In several studies we conducted where we spoke directly with the leaders, the issues seemed to be that of a succession crisis in sector leadership, weak collaboration between public, private, and civil society sectors, and a desire to be more adaptable in times of crisis. Adaptive leaders are those who embrace change, experimentation, and innovation. According to the Harvard Business Review this model of leadership requires 4A’s – Anticipation of likely future needs, Articulation of those needs to build collective understanding, Adaptation which speaks to continuous learning and adjustment of responses and Accountability which involves transparency in decision making.

AGRA in partnershipwith the African Management Institute and USAID’s Policy LINK have designed a 16- month leadership journey under CALA aimed at honing adaptive leadership skills among the eighty leaders in our first cohort, which was launched in August 2021. Across eight countries, we bring together sector executives who have over 15 years’ experience, and ‘rising stars’ to work together to improve their leadership capabilities to implement national agriculture initiatives. For leadership in agriculture development to be ethical, it has to exercise responsible stewardship for natural resources and planetary boundaries as it implements large-scale, long-term projects. Respect for the environment and planetary boundaries, collaboration with communities to manage social and environmental risks, and the boldness to make evidence-based and ethically defensible decisions in the face of political or corporate pressures are some of the emphases CALA seeks to inculcate. We believe that building an influential, continental network of leaders who subscribe to these ethics will positively influence ‘rising stars’, create a reward system that supports ethical conduct, and improves the norms which shape how we deliver on sector commitments.

 In Kiswahili we have a saying that  Akishindwa sultani, raia huweza nini? (When the sultan/leaders cannot identify a solution to a problem, what can the ordinary citizens do?) Ethical leaders can create positive ripples that influence the behavior of their colleagues through social learning (Bandura, 1986) which includes observation, imitation, and modeling as well as through social exchange processes. So, we hope that by supporting peer learning across a critical mass of ethical leaders with adaptive leadership skills in the agriculture sector, we can build networks where leaders can collaborate especially in times of crisis, and where leaders can hold each other accountable to their commitments for the advancement of African Food Systems.

Nungari Mwangi, Ph.D.

Centre for African Leaders in Agriculture (CALA)

Nairobi, Kenya

Photo credit: iStock shironosov


Bandura, A. (1986). Social foundations of thought and action. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice–Hall.

Brown, M. E., & Treviño, L. K. (2006b). Role modeling and ethical leadership. Paper presented at the 2006 Academy of Management Annual Meeting. Atlanta, GA.

Treviño, L. K., Hartman, L. P., & Brown, M. (2000). Moral person and moral manager: How executives develop a reputation for ethical leadership. California Management Review, 42, 128−142.

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