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Want to make agriculture attractive for Africa's youth? More bitumen please

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs

By Dr. Wanjiru Kamau-Rutenberg

April 12, 2018

At conferences across Africa and beyond, speaker after speaker is concerned with how to make agriculture “sexy” for Africa’s young people. In this blog, I want to explore some unconventional solutions.

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Three factors are key in shaping the context within which we desire to attract more of Africa’s youth to agriculture. First, Africa’s economy is predicted to grow at more than 4 percent in 2018. But productivity in the agriculture sector – in which more than half of Africans work – remains stubbornly low. This is partly because billions of farmers who work in agriculture are rural subsistence farmers who farm small pieces of land for long hours and barely earn $2 a day.

Secondly, we seek to make agriculture more desirable to Africa’s rural youth because the continent is experiencing a substantial demographic change and there are more young Africans now than at any other time in history. Currently, Africa is home to 1.2 billion people, 60 percent of them are under 35.

The third reason we need to draw more of Africa’s rural youth into agriculture is that 60 percent of Africa’s population lives in rural areas and Africa’s agriculture happens in these same rural areas. They are the key to an agriculture-driven transformation for the continent. The numbers set a clear imperative: if we can figure out how to attract and support Africa’s rural youth to succeed in agriculture we can turn Africa’s youth bulge into a powerful demographic dividend with tremendous impact on African economies.

Love or farming; an untenable choice for Africa’s rural youth
Much of the conversation on making agriculture sexy for Africa’s youth is focused on increasing the profitability of the sector. However, new research tends to indicate that it’s not all just about money. Our current systems are forcing young Africans to make an untenable choice between being farmers or giving up the joys of youth.

In a 2016, Well Told Story, conducted an innovative survey on what it would take to make agriculture sexy and fun for young people and the findings were stunning. They found that “sex, money and fun are inseparable throughout any and all youth activities. Money is certainly desirable, but it is not worth the effort if more money does not result in more sex and more fun”.

The study’s findings remind us that agriculture necessarily happens in rural spaces, “a place with no date-worthy girls or boys and definitely no fun. So even if a young person becomes a successful farmer with a healthy income – they cannot buy their way into a date-worthy urban peer community”. The study concludes that “to be persuasive to young Kenyans, a positive deviant story in agriculture cannot simply be about a wealthy young farmer. It needs to be about young people, enjoying the attention of good-looking guys or girls, having fun and being able to live the good life with the money they earn as effective entrepreneurs”.

Rather than trying to make rural areas more exciting spaces, we should focus on making it possible for the young people who make a living in rural spaces to have access to urban pleasures. We need to invest in infrastructure.

Most conversations about the importance of infrastructure for the agricultural sector are driven by concerns around market access but, if we want to retain young people in Africa’s rural farms we need roads and railways that connect rural spaces to urban spaces. Young people in rural areas must not be faced with an untenable choice between giving up their youth or being farmers.

Bring farmer support services to the digital age
Africa’s youth are already interested in agriculture, but they are engaging differently, and current systems are not meeting their needs. Significant numbers of Africa’s rural youth are using social networks to build vibrant communities of young farmers. For example, Digital Farmers Kenya, is a closed Facebook group with over 200,000 mostly young farmers spread all over Kenya. Dairy Farmers Kenya and similar digital communities across the continent allow young people to support and encourage each other.

In our experience with the pilot phase of the Gender in Agribusiness Investments for Africa (GAIA) initiative, we at African Women in Agricultural Research and Development (AWARD) were surprised by the way young agripreneurs all over the continent used social media networks to galvanize over 700 boot camp applications in 2 weeks.

Unfortunately, because most agricultural support services were built on assumptions of an older demographic of farmers, they have not adjusted to adequately meet the needs and priorities of Africa’s growing crop of young digital farmers. Scores of young farmers are left to fend for themselves on Google or advise each other in the absence of structured and scientifically sound support. While the odd app or mobile service exists, these are usually from the private sector or civil society. African governments hold the true but untapped potential to take digital farmer support services to scale.

Exploring solutions for Africa’s young farmers is part of AWARD’s commitment to gender-responsive agricultural research and innovation. Defining a gender-responsive agricultural sector as one that responds to the needs of the diversity of men and women across agricultural value chains, we are interested in how the needs and priorities of young men and women differ from the needs and priorities of an older generation. I encourage the sector to look at the question of how to make agricultural research sexy to Africa’s rural youth as part of a larger conversation we need to have about what a more inclusive agricultural sector in Africa looks like.

I welcome you to join us in the conversation here and explore more on our social media platforms. @AWARDFellowship @MaMoPanel

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