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 information, training, technology, and financial services.
He is also a member of the Rwanda Youth Agribusiness Forum whose 12,200 young adult members are a source of innovation: in crop production, agro-processing, input and services, and ICT for agriculture and livestock. This is the kind of resourced space that young people need to share ideas and access resources. Governments and businesses need to support similar organizations across the continent.
But support for youth to enter agri-business cannot wait until after high school. It must begin in primary school, including topics from growing to marketing crops. And teachers must desist from using farming as punishment. Africa’s agricultural universities must also retool their curriculum to focus more on practical skills and knowledge sharing rather than only theoretical knowledge. Only in this way will students who graduate from college be ready to work in agriculture.
About 10 to 12 million youths enter the job market each year, and the majority still live in rural areas. Yet only one in six young people under age 35 has stable wage employment. For agriculture to end hunger in Africa, provide employment for youth and help power an economic recovery, it must arm young people with the skills, technology, and financing they need to build businesses across the food system.
To be sure, there are exciting steps in the right direction. Companies like FarmWella in Nigeria, which I co-founded, is working with high-schools and universities in to attract African youth to agriculture. AACE Foods, also in Nigeria, contracts with 10,000 farmers and provides them with training in business management and best farm practices. Many more companies and institutions can follow suit.
Last September at the African Green Revolution Forum in Accra, Ghana, the Mastercard Foundation pledged US$500 million for young African ‘agripreneurs’, and others pledged more than $200 million in agribusiness venture capital. But more is needed. The financial sector continues to view agriculture as high risk and meets less than 3 percent of total smallholder demand for financing in Africa, estimated at $450 billion. Public and private investments could transform the prominence and reputation of agriculture.
Farmers are not a cause of poverty; they are a solution. It is time to change the way we think. Youth need society’s full support to enter agriculture, and farmers need to be respected. Their profession is crucial to every individual on the continent, today and for decades to come.
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