Nteranya Sanginga is Director General of the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture
– Africa’s frailties have been brutally exposed by the coronavirus pandemic. The virus has reached nearly every country on this continent of 1.3 billion people and the World Health Organization warns there could be 10 million cases within six months. Ten countries have no ventilators at all.
Governments are fighting the pandemic with weak health systems where lockdowns are especially punitive in the absence of a welfare state. Many people subsist on daily earnings, living off the informal economy in densely crowded living conditions that make a mockery of ‘social distancing’. Collapsing commodity prices in international markets and capital outflows from emerging markets are hitting economies.
But so too Africa’s strengths are on display. Valuable lessons have been learned from past epidemics, such as the Ebola outbreak in 2014, and governments are responding with strict measures. Far from the stereotyped image of the Third World calling for help from richer countries, people are demonstrating their resilience, generosity, civic spirit and boundless ingenuity.
Africa’s young population gives hope too. With a median age of less than 20 years, the continent may suffer relatively fewer fatalities than other nations with more ageing populations. The pandemic is underscoring what many have cautioned for years – that Africa’s economies need to depend less on exporting raw materials and do more to tackle the urgent issues of food insecurity, youth unemployment and poverty.
Developing agriculture is key to addressing these challenges. Youth brings energy and innovation to the mix, but these qualities can be best channelled by young Africans themselves carrying out results-based research in agribusiness and rural development involving young people. Youth engagement is key.
As a research-for-development non-profit, the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) works with various partners across sub-Saharan Africa to facilitate agricultural solutions to hunger, poverty and natural resource degradation. IITA improves livelihoods, enhances food and nutrition security and increases employment as one of 15 research centres in CGIAR, a global partnership for a food secure future.
Throughout the pandemic, IITA is helping sub-Saharan food systems by monitoring food prices and strengthening access to agricultural technologies and markets..
Before the coronavirus surfaced, IITA had launched a three-year project known as CARE (Enhancing Capacity to Apply Research Evidence) to build an understanding of poverty reduction, employment impact, and factors influencing youth engagement in agribusiness, and rural farm and non-farm economies. The project was funded by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and provided 80 research fellowships for young African scholars, with an emphasis on young female professionals and students aiming to acquire a master’s or doctoral degree.
Grantees were offered training on research methodology, data management, scientific writing, and the production of research evidence for policymaking. They are mentored by IITA scientists and experts on a research topic of their choice and produce science articles and policy briefs about their work.
How is Africa going to feed a population set to double by 2050? As CGIAR says: we are at a crossroads in the world’s food system and cannot continue our current trajectory of consuming too little, too much, or the wrong types of food at an unsustainable cost to natural resources, the environment and human health.
Here in sub-Saharan Africa, agriculture contributes to nearly a quarter of GDP and smallholder farmers make up more than 60 percent of the population. Young people are finding careers in agribusiness and IITA aims to strengthen their capacity to inform future action plans for local communities and up to national governments, the business sector and international community.
Dolapo Adeyanju, a IITA grantee, illustrates how Africa is capable of generating more youth engagement in policy research, whether on policy, start-ups, agribusiness, development initiatives or leadership. A Nigerian national, Ms Adeyanju is a master’s student at the University of Nairobi working in collaboration with the University of Pretoria, focusing on the impact of agricultural programs on youth agripreneurship in Nigeria.
“Policymakers cannot operate in a vacuum,” she says, stressing the need for appropriate policies to be based on relevant evidence derived from research results and recommendations.
Development of effective policies will enable African young people who are already taking advantage of agricultural research to make a life out of farming. IITA’s CARE project will help make up for the deficit of youth-specific research, and the support of IFAD ensures that young Africans will have a voice in how they can contribute to this effort.
Africa was not well prepared for a crisis of this magnitude in COVID-19. Universities have been closed, borders shut, and trade has plummeted. The pandemic has exposed decades-long underinvestment in vital sectors, as well as demonstrating the importance of scientific and educational collaboration. The immediate focus will naturally be on the direct response to the disease in terms of medical research, equipment and health care. But as the pandemic pushes through, Africa must keep its eye on long-term development needs. IITA will play its role in equipping the next generation to advance agriculture and feed the people of Africa.