The development of Africa’s agricultural sector is key not only to ensuring food security, but also to create jobs for millions of job-seeking youth

It sounds like the perfect solution to Africa’s challenges. The continent’s agricultural sector has the potential to grow to US$1 trillion by 2030, bringing development, employment opportunities, inclusive growth and – perhaps most importantly – the promise of food security. So why aren’t more young Africans interested in pursuing careers in farming?

As an economic sector, agriculture appears to be fertile ground for wealth creation. Participants at the AfDB’s 2018 Africa Investment Forum, held in Johannesburg, South Africa, last November, spoke of agribusiness becoming the continent’s ‘new oil’, and shared ideas on Africa as a potential net exporter of agricultural commodities. ‘Agriculture is a key priority for the African Development Bank, through our Feed Africa strategy,’ said Jennifer Blanke, the AfDB vice-president for agriculture, human and social development. ‘Understand that by transforming Africa’s agriculture sector it will become the engine that drives Africa’s economic transformation through increased income, better jobs higher on the value chain, improved nutrition, and so on.’

It’s a massive opportunity, with the potential to completely reshape Africa’s future. Yet the idea of working in the agricultural sector is met with a collective shrug by the continent’s young people. In its recent Byte By Byte report, the Malabo Montpellier Panel notes that between 10 million and 12 million youths are expected to enter the African labour market each year over the next decade. ‘While some African countries have seen a growth in formal employment, most young people are likely to work in informal, often low-paid jobs,’ it states. ‘Currently, farming alone accounts for about 60% of total employment across the continent, and significantly more when jobs along the entire food value chain are taken into account. In Ethiopia, Malawi, Mozambique, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia, for example, the food system is projected to add more jobs between 2010 and 2025 than the rest of the economy, yet young people show little or no interest in pursuing employment opportunities in the agriculture sector.’

Why is that? Perhaps the answer lies in the perceptions of farming on the continent, where images of ancient equipment and dusty crops persist, despite the massive advances in drone technology, seed innovation, financing, cloud-based data gathering and skills training.

The same Malabo Montpellier Panel report highlights that Africa as a region has the least-mechanised agricultural system in the world, with African farmers having 10 times fewer mechanised tools per farm area than farmers in other developing regions. Some leaders at the 2018 Africa Investment Forum, meanwhile, pointed out that investment of US$45 billion per year is needed to harness the power of Africa’s agriculture and move up the value chain to create jobs and wealth, but currently only US$7 billion is being invested in the sector.
Several initiatives continent-wide are hoping to bridge that gap, creating enabling platforms for young innovators and empowerment opportunities for Africa’s millions of smallholder farmers. In Ghana, OCP Africa recently relaunched its Agribooster Offer, which aims to increase food production in the country. Initially launched in 2018, when it targeted maize and rice farmers, the initiative saw OCP Africa and Ghana’s Ministry of Food and Agriculture working together to connect farmers to financing and insurance, training local extension agents on proper fertiliser use, and collaborating with other providers to ensure they had the right fertilisers and other inputs.

‘OCP introduced this Agribooster Offer to support farmers because we realised smallholder farmers were facing difficulties such as lack of skills, finance and market access that prevented them from improving productivity of their farms and kept them at a subsistence level,’ OCP Africa’s Ghana country manager Samuel Oduro-Asare said at the launch. He added that farmers who embraced the programme gained access to good-quality inputs and financial services, and training on good agricultural practices. Additionally, market linkages were enhanced.

However, while smallholder farmers represent a large part of Africa’s current agricultural workforce, more and more focus is being put on the future. The Malabo Montpellier Panel’s report unpacks how ICT applications can transform the future of African farming, counteracting the damaging effects of climate change.

The authors note how ‘digital technologies are rapidly changing the agriculture employment landscape, creating jobs that require a new set of skills, and that are more profitable and appealing to the youth’. High-tech innovations, paired with digital literacy training, are at the heart of this. ‘Africa’s young people are its most valuable asset,’ the report says. ‘The entrepreneurial spirit of Africa’s youth visible in many parts of the continent reflects how Africa is becoming innovative in finding locally relevant solutions to daily challenges in agriculture, health and education.

Fostering a business-friendly environment and culture of entrepreneurship will be key to harnessing this spirit. A long-term, sustainable transformation of the agriculture sector through the use of digital technologies and services therefore requires improved access to quality education.’

One of the report’s more significant insights is the suggestion that digital storage technology could enhance Africa’s current approaches to agriculture, rather than – as some critics fear might happen – using tech to impose developed-world models. ‘In many parts of Africa, rural communities apply their own food production, processing and storage practices based on indigenous knowledge, passed on through generations,’ the report authors write. ‘Farmers often also have specific knowledge on the nutritional value and other characteristics of indigenous crops, such as a crop’s tolerance to drought or heat.

Digital technologies can play an important role in facilitating the storage, access, retrieval and sharing of such knowledge for the benefit of value-chain development and food-systems transformation.’ They add that the digitalisation of Africa’s food system presents ‘new opportunities for the use of digital and data-driven technologies at each segment of the agriculture value chain, which can guide and support decisions on production methods, value-chain optimisation and storage methods to avoid food waste and loss’.

Digitalisation and the emergence of these (and other) agritech innovations will play a vital role in modernising and future-proofing African agriculture. With the majority of people in most African countries living in rural areas and depending on agriculture for a livelihood, the continent’s pathway out of poverty is closely linked to developments in agriculture. There’s a growing sense, then, that if agriculture were to transform into a prosperous, wealth-creating sector, the related economic opportunities would help lift hundreds of millions of Africans out of poverty.
But as the AfDB’s director of special programmes, Maria Mulindi, says: ‘Agriculture in Africa must make the shift from being treated simply as a social sector for managing poverty or for piloting development projects to a business that creates wealth, transforms livelihoods and is an attractive, popular and sustainable economic activity.’

Events such as AfDB’s annual AgriPitch Competition showcase exactly that kind of thinking, and highlight Africa’s shift from farming to ‘agripreneurship’. The most recent winners, announced in Cape Town in July, include Alex Muli, a veteran exporter of Kenyan fresh fruits and vegetables; and Paul Sheppard, a young South African farmer who specialises in the design, provision and management of indoor and outdoor hydroponic systems.

In 2018, one of the winners was Aboubakar Karim, a 23-year-old Ivorian agripreneur whose start-up uses drones to enable precision agriculture. The 2017 winners include 24-year-old Ghanaian Ababio Kwame, whose company specialises in the production, extraction and marketing of palm oil; and Kenya’s Mary Joseph, of FarmDrive, who developed a mechanism for providing detailed risk profiles of small farmers to Kenyan financial institutions. A recurring theme in the AgriPitch Competition is the relative youth of the entrants, and the way their start-ups and innovations speak to both small- and large-scale farmers.

When the organisers of the eLearning Africa conference announced that their 2019 event would include a special programme focusing on the farming and food sector, Harold Elletson, editor of the eLearning Africa Report, said: ‘As African governments begin to develop their exciting plans for a common free-trade area, they now face some important choices. Should they, for example, rush into the arms of the globalised, highly industrial “Big Farm” corporations who increasingly want to muscle in on African agriculture, or should they encourage the growth of small farms, develop Africa’s trade and distribution infrastructure, preserve traditional knowledge and extend access to skills, training and investment for African workers, managers and entrepreneurs?’

It’s a provocative question, and one that Africa’s young agripreneurs are already starting to answer.

By: Mark van Dijk
Photography: Gallo/Getty Images