It is no understatement to say Vanessa Adams ’88 has gone the extra mile in her career, figuratively and literally. She’s currently a vice president at Alliance for a Green Revolution for Africa (AGRA), a Nairobi-based agricultural organization. With her expansive experience working in Africa, she has blazed a trail working for key development players in Mali, Ghana, Ethiopia and South Africa and working regionally in 29 of Africa’s 54 countries.
Yet, despite spending 17 years on the continent, she didn’t specifically seek it out as a destination. As a teenager growing up in Honolulu, Adams had set her sights on Europe and Asia, after meeting a French exchange student. “As early as 14, I was already negotiating with my mother to go to France,” she recalls. Her mother’s response was admittedly different: “Don’t go to France. Go to Punahou.’”
Her mother’s plan was fortuitous. “I completely dove in and thrived,” Adams says about her time at Punahou. At the top of her academic hit list she puts Asian Studies, Physics, Advanced Writing and French – all of which she rounded out by singing with the Punahou Chorale and performing in “Fiddler on the Roof.”
It was during her senior year that Adams’ drive to chart her own course – not to mention, her ability to negotiate a successful deal – became apparent. Having finished her Academy requirements in three and a half years, Adams convinced her dean, Tom Metcalf, to allow her to leave early. Her destination: Colorado, where she enrolled in a leadership program.
A year later, in 1989, she headed for France, working initially as a nanny in Paris, then attending a small liberal arts college. She went on to launch a nonprofit in Grenoble, producing theatrical works with area schools and even penning a play. A career-long interest in mobilizing communities for the greater good began to solidify. The young director enlisted retirees to assist with costume design and, in an encore-worthy move, scored a château as a performance venue.
A stop back in Colorado in 1995 led her into a seven-year foray into the Fortune 500 business world, giving her valuable experience while rising to leadership positions in corporate America. Eventually, she came to another point of reassessing her life purpose. She applied to the Peace Corps. Not long after, she sold her belongings and arrived with a bunch of college grads at a training center in rural Mali.
This radical new experience would ultimately change the direction of her life. It was there in Mali that she met her husband. She also gained a deeper insight of the impact of poverty and food insecurity.
Since then, she’s been on a nearly two-decade mission of making a difference from the ground up. Improving Africa’s agricultural productivity and supply chains are her motivations, especially where 70% to 80% of the sub-Saharan population are dependent on rain-fed agriculture. “The goal was always economic transformation, whether through smallholder agriculture, creating jobs or entrepreneurship,” she says. “I worked with thousands of small businesses in West Africa, Ethiopia and Southern Africa, and helped them see how their businesses could grow from market access and finance, and help pay for kids to go to school.”
She’s also committed to empowering women, helping implement the African Women’s Entrepreneurship Program that Hillary Clinton had launched as secretary of state. “As I worked with women in positions of power in Africa, I realized how they had to fight so hard for their positions,” she says. “There were few networks where they could feel safe and rely on other women for support.”
As one of USAID’s project leaders supporting farmers in Ethiopia, Adams turbocharged her efforts to put a network in place. “We were able to get additional funding to launch Women’s Agribusiness Leadership Network and supported almost 1,200 women agripreneurs, giving them what we called a mini MBA.” For the curriculum, she utilized business principles she learned while earning her MBA at the esteemed French institution, INSEAD. The women received training, mentorship and networking opportunities.
Now in Nairobi, Adams intends to incorporate elements of that program to her work with AGRA. “One thing I appreciate about AGRA is that it’s not a project, but an actual organization with a mission and mandate to transform farmers’ lives,” she says. “If I work in development, I prefer to be in the field, as close as possible to impact areas.”
One area she is focusing on is Partnership for Inclusive Agricultural Transformation in Africa (PIATA), a $500 million initiative that has drawn funding from the likes of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, The Rockefeller Foundation and the U.S., U.K. and German governments. “The goal is to directly impact 10 million smallholder farmers and indirectly another 20 million smallholder farmers within a five-year period, which is an ambitious goal,” she explains.
With partnerships like PIATA in force, Adams has no plans of slowing down. “I definitely have this inner compulsion to make a bigger difference, help more people and see more change,” she says.
But after such a tome-worthy journey, what does Adams see down the road? In a twist, Hawai‘i may be on the distant horizon, especially with her mother now living on Kaua‘i. “My husband has fallen in love with the Islands, and we are now scheming about how to move back,” she says. As for her two children, she sees the possibility of Punahou. “Punahou was a very rich and wonderful experience, so much so that I am trying to figure out how to get my kids there for high school,” she says.
It looks like another life-changing adventure may be in the works.