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From Shame to Pride - Repositioning Agriculture for Africa's Youth

The COVID-19 pandemic has set off the first recession in Sub-Saharan Africa in 25 years; the economy is predicted to contract by between -2.1 and -5.1 percent in 2020—with a related fall in agricultural production by up to 7 percent.  This spells increased hunger for a continent already home to one-in-five of the world’s malnourished people.

But this tragic turn of events is not permanent, and Africa will recover and rebuild.  To do so as quickly as possible, Africa will need an educated new generation of young farmers to transform the continent’s food security and fortunes. June 11 is World Agriculture Day. It is a day to celebrate Africa’s farmers, even as they struggle through a rising wave of hardship, and to envision a new future.

Farming—especially in an era of climate extremes—is a knowledge-intensive industry, calling for new techniques, seeds and strategies. With encouragement and the right support Africa’s youth could meet this challenge. But it will take a change in mindset.

Few young people in Africa see a future for themselves in agriculture. Most youths think of farming as undignified, backbreaking labor that pays peanuts. These perceptions permeate African society, from rural classrooms to the boardrooms of Africa’s banks. Until youth, who comprise an estimated 65 percent of Africa’s population, venture into agribusiness, there is little chance of ending hunger.

But rural youth feel society’s bias against farming every day. I certainly did.  My family barely survived the famine in Rwanda in 1997. I was 11 years old when I decided that if I live, I would study agriculture and make sure that no other child goes hungry. But I was often late to school, walking miles to arrive famished and distracted in class.

For this transgression, I was booted out of the classroom and forced to farm. Along with other recalcitrant students, I was sent to weed vegetables and harvest coffee, haul water and dig holes.  Filled with shame and confusion, the experience almost broke my resolve.  Many of my peers ran as fast as they could from their parents’ farms.

Today, African schools still use farm activities to penalize students, and youth still flee farm life, convinced it will offer only humiliation and poverty. Meanwhile, Africa’s agricultural potential remains largely untapped.

But as an agricultural scientist who has introduced new nutritious crops to hundreds of communities and fostered agricultural enterprises in African countries, I see that potential every day.

Four things are needed to inspire young people to take up agriculture and to enable their success: the celebration of agricultural entrepreneurs; improved youth access to information and practical training; improved access to technology; and, most importantly, access to financial services.

Dieudonne Twahirwa is a young Rwandan agribusiness entrepreneur who has secured a $500 million (RWF 470 billion) deal to export of chili oil in China.  Trained as an agronomist, Twahirwa has been growing chili for just three years. But the contract is not a matter of luck. Rather, he had access to informat