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Could youth interest in agriculture boost Africa's economy?

The African Development Bank's new leader Akinwumi Adesina promoted agricultural reform when he was the Minister of Agriculture in Nigeria. Esther Ngumbi explains how garnering more youth interest in agriculture could help the continent's economic development.

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    Akinwumi Adesina, then-Nigeria's agriculture minister, talks during the closing ceremony of the annual meeting commemorating the 50th anniversary of the African Development Bank in Abidjan May 29, 2015. In the past, Adesina has promoted agricultural reform, which could help boost Africa's economy if there is more youth interest.
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The African Development Bank, Africa’s biggest lending institution, recently elected a new leader: Akinwumi Adesina. The former Minister of Agriculture in Nigeria, Adesina led an agricultural transformation in his country.  Among Adesina’s revolutionary acts was the launch of a program to develop 750,000 young entrepreneurs—Nagropreneurs—in agriculture. In his new position, Adesina will have the opportunity to promote similar reforms across Africa. It is just what Africa needs.

Africa has the world’s largest proportion of young people, as well as the highest prevalence of hunger in the world. The majority live in rural areas, and their families are farmers who largely remain outside the mainstream of the formal economy, struggling to increase their productivity and incomes.

Today, 70 percent of Africa’s young people live on less than US$2 a day and the youth unemployment is high. African countries face the challenge of providing employment to the young, even as its working age population is expected to double to one billion over the next 25 years. Agricultural development offers a crucial part of the solution to this dilemma.

For sustainable economic growth to become a defining reality across the region, this young generation must be empowered to transform agriculture from a poverty trap to a high-technology powerhouse of innovation in sustainable development.  

Africa’s agricultural revolution will be digitized and monetized. Its leaders will make millions. Its rank and file will have college degrees, sport wearable technology, operate high-tech tractors and drones, read soil maps, interpret weather data, and access futures markets. Africa has the potential to produce abundant, safe and healthy food that will not only meet the continent’s food needs, but also be of such taste, class and distinction that the whole world will want it.

But to get there, Africa’s youth need to lead. And, today, our younger generation wants nothing to do with agriculture, because it is tedious. They see it as a dead-end.

I can relate to this mindset. Growing up in a rural farm in the Kenyan Coast, we had to grow everything that we ate. I did not enjoy the process of farming, and never ever did I want to be a farmer. Instead, I wanted to be a banker. I envied the accountants seated in air-conditioned offices. I, too, wanted a career that would make me look—and feel—cool.

Young people possess the energy and creativity needed to transform agriculture. They are tech-savvy, purpose-driven and entrepreneurial. Africa should inspire our younger generation so that they see agriculture as a sector of opportunity that will not only provide jobs and wealth for young agri-preneurs, but also good food for Africa’s increasing population.

Agri-preneurs can tap into opportunities all along the value chain: from supplying fertilizer and seed, to processing, transporting and marketing of food. Once tapped into, these opportunities can turn young jobless Africans into millions of success stories. What will it take to achieve this?

Firstly, aspiring agri-preneurs need role models, and their stories need to be widely promoted. One such role model is 27-year-old Senai Wolderfael, featured in Forbes Magazine as one of the 30 most promising young entrepreneurs in Africa. He saw a gap in the market for exporting Ethiopian spice blends to Ethiopians living abroad and he capitalized on it. Today, he is a thriving agri-prenuer.

Secondly, it will take collaborations, investment, training, and mentoring to empower the youth with the skills and resources that will allow them to develop and own agribusinesses.

Take for instance, financing. It is crucial to the successful establishment of any business. Africans are stepping up to provide funds to young people who want to enter the agriculture sector. For example, the Tony Elumelu Foundation Entrepreneurship Programme has set up a US$100 million annual fund for start-ups from young people, including in agriculture.

Thirdly, African agriculture has to be mechanized and modernized. Young people run away from agriculture because of the drudgery of its manual labor and outdated tools. Mechanizing agriculture will make farming far more attractive to the youth.

The first time I sat on a tractor, my opinion of farming changed. I was in Israel as a visiting scholar with the Agriculture Research Organization when I experienced the power of farm machinery, high technology and irrigation for the farmer and her output. From that moment on, I wanted to be a farmer.

Today’s youth can also be inspired to transform their lives and the future of their countries. To do so, they need leaders at the highest levels of government, civil society and business to invest time, money and resources in agriculture and in youth. Our leaders must take a chance on the youth and help rebrand what it means to be a millennial farmer, not only through words, but more so through deeds.

Engaging our younger generation in agriculture will do more than produce food. It will create jobs, wealth, and bring the much needed agricultural makeover to Africa.

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