Abisola Adedigba, 25, recently found one of her old kindergarten books, in which readers had to match names of professions to the correct illustration. The farmer, she said, was depicted as a man with a hoe.
Now a legal and compliance officer at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture, the young Nigerian has a somewhat broader view of farming. But “for 20-something years, a farmer to me was someone who holds a hoe or a cutlass,” Adedigba told Devex.
That image is still a reality — with levels of farm mechanization in sub-Saharan Africa the lowest worldwide — and it prompts many young people to seek work in towns and cities instead.
But getting more youth into agriculture, and keeping them there, could transform the sector — and the wider economy. It’s not only about finding employment for a growing youth population, with 11 million young Africans entering the job market each year. Youth-led innovation could also help drive the shift to a more productive, sustainable agriculture system, considered key to the continent’s future development.
While most farmers in Africa — whose average age is around 60 — tend to farm much as their parents and grandparents did, younger generations are harnessing new techniques and experimenting with ways to add value. Real Agricultural Solutions for Africa, or RASA, a business co-founded in 2013 by university students in Uganda, for example, created the country’s first domestically produced coffee liquor; it now churns out up to 4,500 liters per month. Youth are quick to adopt new technology: 90 percent of young Kenyan farmers use information and communication technology. Many also bring the academic knowledge their predecessors missed out on; tertiary education enrolment in sub-Saharan Africa grew 20-fold between 1970 and 2008, according to UNESCO.
Ambition — and discouragement
Perhaps most importantly, young innovators see themselves as playing a central role in reshaping agriculture.
“While the average farmer just provides enough to make ends meet, we’re saying the ideal farmer is supposed to feed the nation, provide jobs for others and make money for ourselves,” said Adedigba. A common refrain among agricultural entrepreneurs like herself, she added, is: “It’s ‘business unusual,’ not business as usual.”
3 examples of ‘business unusual’
• At Habona Ltd., founded by Rwandan entrepreneur Jean Bosco Nzeyimana, briquettes made of compacted organic waste offer an alternative to wood charcoal, which causes deforestation and smoke pollution.
• The American-Ugandan couple behind social enterprise KadAfrica give out-of-school girls land and training to cultivate passion fruit, boosting their incomes while helping revive the fruit’s domestic production in Uganda.
• Kenyan student Laetitia Mukungu, founder of the Africa Rabbit Centre, has helped 15 families make a living by raising and selling rabbits to restaurants, as well as opening a school for 300 underprivileged children.
But even for the most ambitious, the first priority is income. IITA’s Youth Agripreneurs program, an incubator for agribusinesses, was set up by IITA’s Director-General Dr. Nteranya Sanginga in 2012, when he saw those he had engaged as part of Nigeria’s national youth service struggling to find jobs afterwards, Adedigba explained. Similarly, although RASA now also aims to increase incomes of coffee growers, the initial motivation was “to make a living,” said co-founder James Kyewalabye.
That same pressure to earn a living means youth engaged in agriculture frequently have other informal jobs or run other businesses at the same time. Nor are they necessarily committed to farming. Recent research by Michigan State University and MasterCard Foundation in Rwanda, Tanzania and Nigeria found that 25 to 34 year olds are significantly less engaged in farming than those aged 15 to 24, suggesting they move on when a better opportunity appears. Those who do persist may not get much support: Kyewalabye’s friends told him his idea would do until he “got a real job.” For 26-year-old Innocent Jumbe, who manages production and sales of new drought-tolerant seed varieties at his family business in Malawi, such discouragement was a major challenge at first. “People kept saying, ‘it’s not profitable,’” he said.
Africa has the largest share of the world’s available arable land — but that doesn’t mean it’s accessible. One study found lack of access to land was the main factor causing rural youth in Ethiopia to leave agriculture. Securing land depends on the context, said Alemayehu Konde Koira, senior program manager for youth livelihoods at MasterCard Foundation. As part of his organization’s Youth Forward Initiative in Ghana, for example, project partners facilitate access to farmland through local chieftains, the landowners in that region.
Education is another persistent challenge, with low literacy levels, poor numeracy and high drop-out rates common among rural youth. Would-be entrepreneurs also need skills in more than just production. TechnoServe’s Strengthening Rural Youth Development through Enterprise program, in partnership with MasterCard Foundation, offers training in agribusiness, value chain opportunities, negotiation and cooperative development, among others. One former Rwandan participant developed a business plan for a poultry farm during the program, and two years later was collecting over 8,000 eggs a month.
Young agri-entrepreneurs also need capital — but accumulating savings is tough, while inexperience, lack of collateral and the unpredictability of farming turns off most lenders. Where loans are available, interest rates are typically high — and repayment periods are often too short for an investment that may take many months or even years to bear returns, said Kyewalabye. In his case, financing from the Kampala-based agribusiness incubator CURAD — or the Consortium for Enhancing University Responsiveness to Agribusiness Development — helped RASA move from business plan to reality.
“[CURAD] finds out how your business is going to work, and then designs financial support accordingly,” he said, adding that the agreement allowed for flexibility on repayment dates and amounts.
A business opportunity
Technology — pioneered by young innovators — is helping to close the large financing gap. FarmDrive, designed by two Kenyan computer science graduates, helps farmers improve their record-keeping and farm performance data, enabling them to prove credit-worthiness to potential lenders, all via their mobile phones. Some 3,000 farmers have reportedly registered, accessing $130,000 in loans to date.
New technology may also entice newcomers into agriculture — especially those reluctant to pick up a hoe. The low-cost, smart tractors designed by U.S.-based startup Hello Tractor aim to boost smallholder productivity by mechanizing manual tasks. But their vehicles, which are equipped with GPS and can be hired on demand via a mobile phone, also represent business opportunities for those maintaining and operating them. In Nigeria, the USAID’s Feed the Future program, working with IITA’s youth agripreneurs, has helped train 50 young entrepreneurs to work with Hello Tractor in this way.
The less entrepreneurial can also be encouraged into farming — by showing them how they can make money and offering them a ready market, said Jumbe. He has himself convinced three of his school friends, who now produce seeds for him. Another example is shown by the success of Ugandan passion fruit farm KadAfrica, which buys 100 percent of its cooperatives’ produce and to date has attracted over 1,600 girls as growers to its scheme.
Young people also need to see the huge range of off-farm opportunities, from processing and manufacturing to trading, export, logistics and retail, said Koira. Through a partnership between MasterCard Foundation and the International Center of Insect Physiology and Ecology, for example, 12,500 young people are expected to engage directly in beekeeping and silk farming — but this could potentially lead to around 25,000 additional jobs in harvesting, processing, packaging and marketing.
A growing community
Agriculture is a serious contender in startup circles. Among the ideas selected by the Tony Elumelu Foundation’s entrepreneurship program, agriculture was the most popular sector in both 2015 and 2016, ahead of fashion, ICT and education. Growing interest in ICT innovation for agriculture prompted the creation last year of a collaboration space, Yeesal Agri Hub, the first of its kind in Senegal — and to its founders' knowledge, in Africa.
And successes — whether hi-tech developers or large-scale producers — are challenging the outdated image of farming. In part, that’s thanks to young people sharing the stories themselves.
Created by a Kenyan graduate, Mkulima Young is an online platform that enables young farmers to market agricultural products, ask questions and create networks. Success stories from the community have been picked up by national media, and the platform has over 100,000 Facebook followers.
As such communities grow, young innovators will be better placed to resist discouragement — a sentiment echoed by Yeesal Agri-Hub founding member Elisabetta Demartis. While innovators don't always need a lot of money to launch a new idea, she said, they do need to know they have a supportive community behind them: “They need to know they can succeed.”