“You might not be born a leader, but you can learn to be a good one,” mused the young agricultural researcher sitting across from me. I was attending my first World Food Prize, interviewing alumni from the USAID-funded Borlaug Leadership Enhancement in Agriculture Program (Borlaug LEAP), like the researcher quoted above. Each year, Susan Johnson, the UC Davis Borlaug LEAP program director, brings a group of fellows to the World Food Prize to network with peers, other researchers, and development practitioners.

This year’s Borlaug Dialogue theme—Rise to the Challenge—reflected on the legacy of Dr. Borlaug and explored the massive interdisciplinary effort needed to feed 9.5 billion people expected by 2050. It was a perfect charge for the Borlaug LEAP fellows and other young leaders who, by 2050, will be in positions of influence and training the next generation of scientists and policymakers. Over five days, my colleague and I tagged along with ten Borlaug LEAP fellows and a group of USDA-funded Borlaug International Agricultural Science and Technology Fellowship Program fellows for a special program of side events. A highlight of every year was a meet and great with the World Food Prize Laureates. This year’s program recognized the work of Dr. Lawrence Haddad and Dr. David Nabarro for their leadership in bringing maternal and child undernutrition into the food security and development conversation.

Both laureates eagerly spoke to the fellows about the crucial role they can play as young leaders, change-makers, and innovators in international agriculture. Each began by outlining gaps in leadership as a crucial obstacle to leveraging food systems to achieve global food and nutrition security. According to Dr. Haddad, we need a different breed of scientists that understand how change happens and can be leaders for that change and Rise to the Challenge. Fittingly, both laureates shared similar views about the qualities needed by these new leaders:

  1. Credibility: Young leaders become established players in their fields. They stick to their research, ideas, and theories until new evidence changes their positions. They have humor and humility in their work, while leaving “logos and egos at the door.”
  2. Interdisciplinarity: Food systems, and the 21st century problems facing food and nutrition security, require a complex and multisectoral response. Successful leaders will branch out and become leaders outside of their own disciplines and scientific research as their careers advance. They help to bring together different communities of experts to solve complex problem.
  3. Clarity: The best leaders are effective communicators. They take the highly technical and make it approachable for different audiences. They engage decision makers and stakeholders with research-based evidence to advance the agriculture and development agendas. As Dr. Haddad said, to change the world, scientists need to be able to translate their research to new audiences so that it can be used.
  4. Dedication: Leaders, particularly young leaders, have a vision. They have determination and courage and can sell their ideas. As Dr. Nabarro so aptly put it, they must be “stropists,” his combination of strategic and opportunistic. Leaders take advantage of opportunities to get things done, and the best ones even become inspirations, like Dr. Borlaug.

One of the most convincing things that Dr. Haddad told the group of fellows was, “you are the future, but also the present.” Dr. Nabarro also reminded the fellows that Dr. Borlaug, the namesake and model for their fellowships, fit this model of an ideal leader. He was more than just a researcher: he was a scientist, a communicator, an inspiration, and an opportunist who made change happen. That is precisely what we need of our young leaders in order to change the world. Dr. Haddad left the fellows with a charge to “make it count,” explaining that they, the young leaders, have an incredible amount of agency to make things happen right now.

Indeed, these qualities are promoted by the Borlaug LEAP fellowship. Since that evening, I have spoken with fellows and mentors and poured over program documents. I’ve become intimately familiar with the Borlaug LEAP fellowship and its effectiveness in transferring exceptional technical capacities to fellows while also fostering and encouraging leadership.

When speaking with the fellows, many highlighted networking and professional connections as key benefits of Borlaug LEAP. Working alongside distinguished international researchers both improved their technical skills and confidence and credibility within their fields, while providing important opportunities for interdisciplinary collaboration. I observed this in the fellows at the World Food Prize as they participated in the conference and posed insightful questions to panels and experts in plenary sessions attended by hundreds of participants. One fellow explained that attending the conference after receiving the fellowship was a powerful reminder that, despite their age, their research and contributions to the field matter.

I believe that the Borlaug LEAP fellows reflect the type of leaders that Dr. Borlaug and this year’s laureates envisioned. As a group, they have studied across a wide range of agricultural and food security sciences. Individually, many of them have chosen to do interdisciplinary research. They have followed diverse paths through an equally wide range of research, faculty, government, and other positions. And they are not only participating in but truly leading new directions in the 21st century agricultural innovation system around the world, and particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa.

CP is working with the University of California, Davis to document the history and accomplishments of Borlaug LEAP and its fellows. Since 2005, Borlaug LEAP provided opportunities for graduate students from 27 countries who showed strong promise to become leaders in their fields to engage with distinguished mentors from the US and overseas. A distinction of the fellowship, mirroring Dr. Borlaug’s own career, was the requirement for fellows to identify and work with both a US University and CGIAR mentor. A total of 170 fellows and 270 mentors participated in the program. To learn more, keep an eye out for the forthcoming report about the Borlaug LEAP fellowship.

Photo: LEAP Fellows on a private tour of the Hall of Laureates look at a portrait of Norman Borlaug. Credit: Cait Nordehn