Listening to Africa’s Future Farmers
by Roselyn Mugo-Mareeg.com-NAIROBI – Africa is in the midst of a youth employment crisis. By 2035, some 350 million new jobs will be needed, and agriculture, the continent’s biggest industry, could provide the bulk of them. But at the moment, young Africans are shunning life on the farm for work in the city. If Africa’s employment gap is to be closed, agribusinesses must find ways to recruit younger hands.
This challenge was the focus of my research as part of the Youth Think Tank, a youth-led research initiative in partnership with Restless Development Uganda and the Mastercard Foundation. In a recent report, we examined the experiences of young African agriculturalists in seven countries. And what we discovered is that the best way to entice young people back to the farm is by improving access to and engagement with emerging technologies.
Many of the young people with whom we spoke said that their biggest obstacle to a career in farming is learning the digital and technical skills necessary to succeed in today’s agricultural market. With technologies like cloud computing, soil sensors, and weather drones changing how food is produced, packaged, and distributed, digital literacy is as important as arable land and high-quality seeds. It stands to reason, then, that if more young people could master digital skills, more would find work in the field.
To understand how important technology is to the young African farmer, consider competition for land. Most farmland is acquired through hereditary or communal distribution systems, and when new plots are allocated, they are typically smaller than those provided to previous generations. To remain profitable, younger growers must produce larger crops from smaller spaces, which requires innovation.
Our study found that in many cases, the best solutions for young farmers are already being designed by young people. For example, in Kenya, one vegetable grower turned her kitchen garden into a vertical farm to increase its output. Today, she runs her own business designing, fabricating, and installing similar structures for a variety of customers. Another interviewee created a mobile app to help farmers connect with local seed and fertilizer suppliers.
Unfortunately, these types of youth-driven innovations rarely receive the necessary political or financial backing to make them viable and scalable. Despite having great ideas, most young agricultural innovators do not feel supported in their efforts. Young people can help solve Africa’s unemployment challenges, but those closest to the problem have yet to be made part of the solution.