Agriculture plays a central role in providing productive employment and entrepreneurial opportunities for young people in Africa. As the sector moves into a new era of ‘Agriculture 4.0’ - where solutions lie in digitalization, automation, and artificial intelligence - tech-savvy youth can be instrumental in transforming the food systems in their nations. This column argues that African governments and development partners need to embrace youth-friendly policies to entice more young people to participate in the agricultural sector and promote greater food security.
The world’s current systems of food production, processing, distribution, and consumption are widely recognized as being unsustainable from both ecological and social perspectives. According to projections by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), if the current unsustainable food production systems are maintained it might be difficult to feed the growing human population, which is expected to reach nearly ten billion by 2050.
Agricultural policy and food systems analysts have called for a systematic transformation of food systems to ensure food and nutrition security, equity, poverty elimination, ecological sustainability, and other objectives of sustainable development. The engagement of young people is key to making this transition towards sustainable food systems. Especially in developing countries where the majority of youth live and where agricultural food systems constitute the largest employer.
In many developing countries in Africa, youth are active in many roles and spaces across the food systems. They play vibrant and diverse roles as food producers – contributing to the food and nutritional security of their households and communities; as entrepreneurs and innovators – leveraging technology to revolutionize the agribusiness field; and as agents of change – environmentalists, researchers, activists, journalists, and so on – building their communities’ awareness on ways to become more resilient to climate shocks.
The majority of youth in African countries are based in rural areas, where they are recruited into agriculture from childhood through family subsistence farming and the education curriculum. Many developing countries in sub-Saharan Africa are experiencing a youth bulge, with those aged between 15 and 34 constituting more than 40% of the population. Thus, youth are an important demographic in African development, and today, most agricultural interventions are targeting this group to increase their participation in agricultural and economic development.
One such initiative is the Byte by Byte Policy Innovation program, a policy strategy that is active in seven African countries: Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Kenya, Morocco, Nigeria, Rwanda, and Senegal. This strategy seeks to transform African food systems using digital technologies, by examining the role of institutional innovations and policies in enhancing farmers’ access to markets, information, and digital technologies.
In the absence of financial and technical support, the productivity of youth in the rural economy may be constrained due to production barriers such as the lack of access to resources. They tend to farm on smaller pieces of land, preferring shorter seasons and high-value farm enterprises, such as horticultural production, poultry, bee-keeping, and rabbit rearing.
Agricultural finance that is particularly targeted at young people will be key to supporting youth, as evidenced by the Empower Bank in Zimbabwe. In other countries – including the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mozambique, Rwanda, and Tanzania – governments have partnered with business people and funding agencies to offer financial and technical support to young people, and help them develop ‘bankable’ agribusiness proposals. Opportunities such as these are making a huge difference in promoting youth in agriculture.
Despite initiatives to promote agricultural production and the engagement of youth in agriculture, agricultural production in the African continent remains low compared with the rest of the world. This is exacerbated by the pressures facing farmers from the climate crisis as well as the poor adoption of modern technologies that can improve their productivity in the face of climate threats.
Today’s world is driven by many new technologies, including blockchains, artificial intelligence, and the internet. Compared with older farmers, young farmers are more innovative and better adopters of modern technologies. Youth can turn this digital revolution into climate action for sustainable food systems in Africa.
Historically, farming was shunned by many young people and perceived as a domain for the poor and less educated. Today, more youth are drawn into farming by modern agricultural technologies which help intensify production and increase incomes. Using social media platforms, some of these young ‘agripreneurs’ publicize their enterprises and inspire their followers to venture into agribusiness.
In addition, young people in Africa often invest in activities that support and influence the food value chain. Value chain supporters include bankers, advisers, brokers, and providers of credit, machinery, and other various services. Others play important roles in transforming their nation’s food systems as value chain influencers: students, researchers, policy-makers, and climate activists.
The need for knowledge-driven production has led to a significant increase in the number of young researchers who are engaged in research and discovering innovative ways to solve the various challenges faced by African agri-food systems. For example, youth are considered important stakeholders in the research programs of organizations such as the Consortium of International Agricultural Research Centers (CGIAR) and international climate change negotiations.
Private sector-led initiatives, such as the Bayer-supported Youth Ag Summit, are also creating opportunities for young people around the world to discuss the challenges of food security and to share information on the opportunities available in agriculture. All of these activities offer opportunities to build and transform the African food system as a business.
While examining evidence around opportunities, challenges, and policies, this column has discussed the role that youth can play in transforming African food systems. Despite challenges - such as poor access to land, credit, and markets - the economic context within which young people operate offers them a variety of opportunities to transform African food systems and generate income.
Limited economic and employment opportunities in the urban and non-farm sectors in most African countries have increased policy-makers’ and development planners’ interest in ‘youth-inclusive rural transformation’, where agriculture in rural areas should ideally be intensive and commercially oriented. Future interventions should be based on approaches that incorporate youth aspirations and address the challenges associated with access to resources, such as land and credit.
More should be done to inspire young people, especially in the rural sector, to engage in agriculture and to integrate them into agricultural value chains by:
- Transforming rural areas via investments in infrastructure and other services.
- Supporting youth agribusiness projects with competitive grants.
- Demonstrating successful youth-run agribusiness on social and other media.
- Enhancing skills development through learning and information sharing.
Such interventions will contribute towards improving food and nutrition security and will also help address the challenge of Africa’s ageing farming population.
A Zimbabwean youth into poultry farming
Olga Mapanje is a Ph.D. student at the University of Pretoria. Her research is focusing on the role of public interventions in unlocking climate finance in agriculture.
Rodney Mushongachiware is an Agricultural Economist with 8 years of experience in the development of agricultural markets for smallholder farmers in Zimbabwe.