– Africa will starve or survive on expensive food imports because it is not growing new farmers, research shows. And the challenge remains among researchers, policy makers, public and private sector actors to get African youth interested in agriculture on a continent where a growing number of people go to bed hungry every night.
The International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), a global research institute that generates agricultural innovations to meet Africa’s most pressing challenges of hunger, malnutrition and poverty, has long been promoting several programmes to attract and keep youth in agriculture.
But it has been a tall order to convince the youth that agriculture is the key to creating food and jobs in Africa, IITA Director General Nteranya Sanginga told IPS.
“I have wanted the youth to define what agriculture is all about, for them agriculture is pain, penury and poverty,” Sanginga said. “We need to transform that mind-set and get them to understand that agriculture could be a source of wealth, business and pleasure.”
In 2012 the institution launched the IITA Youth Agripreneur, a programme that enrols 60 youth for hands on training in agriculture and entrepreneurship in 24 centres across Africa each year.
Sanginga said unless Africa promotes new and innovative farmers, the continent will be at the mercy of other regions for its food security.
At the heart of the food challenge is the diminishing labour pool. Smallholder farmers keep Africa fed. Agriculture contributes about 30 percent to the continent’s GDP but the sector is hampered by poor productivity and low investment and the average age of a smallholder farmer in Africa is 60. Yet young farmers are not being produced fast enough to close the labour gap in agriculture production.
Agriculture has a negative image of not being attractive enough for the more ambitious, tech-savvy youth who would rather hustle in urban areas than become farmers.
“When we project farming as a viable economic opportunity for young people, we should tell them it is a process and you have to get your hands dirty,” says Lawrence Afere (35), founder of Springboard, an online network of producers and rural entrepreneurs in Ondo State of Nigeria.
Springboard is working with more than 3,000 members across six states in Nigeria growing plantains, beans and rice. The network gives the farmers inputs and training and buys back the produce for processing and value addition.
The solutions to tackling youth unemployment in Africa are varied but a key solution is to sell agriculture as a business, says Sanginga who initiated the “Start Them Early Programme(STEP)”, which promotes agribusiness studies to primary and secondary school students through club participation, course work and experimental learning.
Furthermore, the IITA has taken a research approach to getting more young people in agriculture.
University researcher Akilimali Ephrem is a 2019 fellow under the CARE programme. He is researching traits for successful agriprenuers in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
“I identified that young people were not attracted towards agriculture. They underestimate the value of agriculture and this has to do with our culture in the DRC,” Akilimali told IPS in an interview.
“Youths are struggling to get jobs yet they are completing their studies and I saw that this CARE project was a way forward because it looks at how best we can engage the youth in agribusiness as an alternative to employment,” said Akilimali, whose research title is ‘Perceived social norms, psychological capital and youth agripreneurial intention in DRC’.
“Everyone is saying that the youth should find a life in agriculture and agribusiness but nobody has ever asked whether these youth would like to do so or have a desire to do so. Probably we should start by increasing their desire to go into agribusiness otherwise we shall be targeting the wrong people,” said Akilimali, who identified psychological capital – a positive developmental mind set – as a key ingredient for any successful agribusiness entrepreneur.
Already, Africa’s food and beverage markets are projected to reach $1 trillion by 2030, according to the AfDB.
AfDB president, Akinumwi Adesina has said making agriculture profitable and ‘cool’ for young people through investment is the solution to pulling millions of Africans out of poverty and a means to stem the tide of youth migration to Europe in search for a better life.
But development researcher Jim Sumberg, from the Institute of Development Studies in the United Kingdom, is not convinced agriculture is the silver bullet.
Sumberg says the idea of agriculture as a vast domain of entrepreneurial opportunity for young people is being grossly over sold, noting there are opportunities for some and for others it is a case of hard work for little reward.
“I believe the idea that a large proportion of young people are leaving rural areas and/or farming is over-played,” Sumberg, told IPS via e-mail.
“There is no real evidence. Further, why would anyone want to “lure” young people into tedious, poorly paid work? It makes no sense! It is true that a modernised agriculture will provide some job opportunities (for youth and others), but I doubt it will be the millions and millions of jobs often promised.”
Sumberg said he had little patience with the idea of changing people’s mind sets so that they see “farming as a business”. It can only be a business if there is the potential for profit, and at the moment is many situations that potential it not there.