The struggling African farmer recast as enterprising entrepreneur

A farmer in Ghana holds up a maize-growing guide. Smallholder farmers in Africa and elsewhere are crucial to international efforts aimed at ensuring sustainable food production. Photo by: Chemonics

The image of the African smallholder farmer bent over maize plants is gradually morphing into one in which she has set her short-handled hoe aside and is checking market prices, electronically accessing her fertilizer voucher with her “e-wallet,” or looking at the weather report on her mobile phone.

On the query pages of new agricultural publications like Seeds of Gold and Smart Farmer here in Kenya, eager readers wanting to find out how to get into the poultry feed business, install a drip irrigation system or access the latest hybrid maize seed varieties are given email addresses, websites and mobile numbers.

African agriculture, long seen as a grueling subsistence activity, now seems to a growing number of young people like something that could be a modern and profitable business activity. A recent report by the influential Montpellier Panel urged the African public and private sector to seize on this interest with new investments in vocational and business management training and access to capital required to fund innovative ideas.

It has been gratifying to see the information technology and telecommunications sector embrace agriculture. But IT and apps alone will not produce the necessary revolution. We need a much broader recognition of the economic and employment opportunities in agriculture, particularly as Africa will, by 2050, have the largest population in the world of people between 14 and 24.

Since its inception, the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa has looked at agriculture as a business. We believe sustainable progress in food production is most likely to occur by helping Africa’s millions of smallholder farmers and the people who serve them become productive and profitable.

One way we have done this is by injecting new energy into Africa’s commercial seed sector through PASS, our Program for Africa’s Seed Systems. Seven years ago it began with a handful of companies that produced about 2,000 metric tons of seed. Now it is partnering with some 80 companies in 16 countries across the continent, helping farmers boost production and income by delivering 80,000 metric tons of seed representing 464 new, high-yield crop varieties.

Locally-owned start-ups like Maslaha Seeds in Nigeria, Aleymayehu Makonnen Farm in Ethiopia, and the aptly named Dryland Seeds in Kenya are now seeking advice, guidance and investment to expand their thriving businesses. To provide this, we are developing a Seed Enterprise Management Institute in cooperation with the Seed Science Center of Iowa State University, where seed company staff members can come for short, specialized courses at the University of Nairobi in Kenya.

We are also working with the small, rural farm supply stores known as “agrodealers” to help them become more assertive and dynamic businesses. We have already trained and certified 15,000 local agrodealers to help address the woeful lack of access to basic inputs like fertilizers. African farmers need just a modest amount of fertilizers that they can use with locally available animal manure to revive depleted soils. But many can’t find or afford even a small bag. The difference is apparent in the multitude of African maize and rice fields that yield a fraction of what farmers obtain elsewhere in the world. We are looking to our agrodealers to help close this frustrating “yield gap.”  

The rapid growth in Africa’s seed sector and the transformation we see in rural agrodealers has shown that with a modest amount of financing and education and an enabling policy environment, Africans — particularly young Africans — are very receptive to the business opportunities in agriculture. But we are also seeing that when support from both the public and the private sector is lacking, this enthusiasm is stifled and all that entrepreneurial energy is idled.

The African Union’s 2003 Maputo Declaration stated that by 2008, 10 percent of member states’ budgets would be dedicated to agriculture. Eleven years later, many are struggling to reach the target but those who have, or at least come close — like Ghana, Rwanda, Ethiopia and Burkina Faso — are seeing agriculture generate benefits across their economies and substantially reduce poverty.

It was encouraging that just a few weeks ago, AU leaders reaffirmed their commitment to agriculture as uniquely effective in driving economic progress, particular as the majority of Africans already are engaged in some aspect of the agriculture economy.

Venture capitalists are flocking to many parts of Africa in search of the next big thing, their arrival evident in apps like iCow, BioVision, iKilimo and Natural Farmer. Now it’s time for everyone else to get on board — governments, NGOs, international development agencies, private sector partners — to harness the energy so evidently available.

It’s unfortunate that when many people talk about the huge youth population in Africa, they use pessimistic phrases like “ticking time bomb.” Let’s take advantage of the opportunities available in agriculture and start talking about our talented young people as something more hopeful, as the seeds for a successful future.

Want to learn more? Check out Feeding Development's campaign site and tweet us using #FeedingDev.

Feeding Development is an online conversation hosted by Devex in partnership with ACDI/VOCA, Chemonics, Fintrac, GAIN, Nestlé and Tetra Tech to reimagine solutions for a food-secure future from seed and soil to a healthy meal.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Jane Karuku

    Jane Karuku is the president of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), where she leads the partnership organization’s work across the continent to help millions of small-scale farmers and their families boost farm productivity and incomes. She previously served on AGRA’s board and brought with her two decades of experience at companies such as Telkom Kenya and Cadbury Limited.