Youth driving transformation of African agriculture

Jonny Casey

February 15th, 2017

On 16th and 17th February, the MasterCard Foundation will host the Young Africa Works Summit in Kigali, Rwanda, to address the opportunities for empowering young people to drive transformational change in African agriculture. Practical Action will be there to share evidence from its work of how technologies – from MP3 podcasts, to solar irrigation systems – can support young people to lead productive lives in agricultural areas, and move towards more sustainable, resilient farming.

Education drives social change

Significant improvements in the access to, and quality of, education in Africa in recent years has led to a great improvement in the skills, capacities, and indeed work opportunities for youth. But in part, this has been a major driver of urban migration, with educated young people leaving their rural towns and villages to seek employment and entrepreneurial opportunities in larger towns and cities. For many young people, agriculture has become synonymous with poverty, vulnerability, and drudgery, and their education has raised their aspirations for lives beyond the farm.

The triple challenge – poverty, productivity, resilience

woman farming in ZimbabweYet we need youth in agriculture now more than ever. As the world’s population rises to an estimated 9 billion people by 2050, there is increasing pressure to grow sufficient, nutritious food to feed the growing populations and changing consumption patterns of consumers globally. At the same time though, the impacts of climate change on agriculture are predicated to pose significant challenges for food production, particularly among those with the least assets, knowledge, and technologies to adapt and be resilient to changing climates and environments – smallholder farmers. We need the skills, knowledge, energy, and innovative approaches of the youth in Africa – and beyond – to drive a change in agriculture; to leverage new technologies and technical knowledge to create resilient, productive and sustainable agricultural systems; and to work with nascent market systems between rural and new urban areas to ensure affordable, nutritious food is available for all, and that agricultural activities provide sufficient, stable incomes.

Gender inequalities

woman farming maize in ZimbabweYoung women face particular challenges. There has been a ‘feminisation’ of agriculture, as social norms and the burdens of unequal gendered roles and responsibilities for care and household tasks have led to more men, with their greater social mobility without such restrictions, to be the majority of those moving out of agriculture and rural areas. Thus young women often face the double burden of labour-intensive smallholder farming, combined with the care and reproductive roles and responsibilities – not just of children, but also of elderly relatives and other family members. Gender inequalities are also often imposed through unequal laws, such as land rights and access to financial services. To ensure the equitable empowerment of youth in agriculture, we must ensure that we do more, in targeted ways, to address these gender inequalities, and provide additional support to young women.

Technologies catalysing change – big data, small data, and renewable energy for climate-smart agriculture

Practical Action has pioneered the way for two areas of technology to catalyse the transformation of African agriculture. Access to technical knowledge is crucial for ensuring smallholder farmers are able to continually improve their yields, diversify their crops, and to foster innovation – particularly to adapt to climate change. This also requires effective, accessible, and actionable climate information services, combining big data from metrological services, long term climate forecasts, and local-level sensors. With over 90% of young farmers in Kenya saying they regularly access internet-enabled services on their mobile devices, digital technologies provide an exciting and appropriate medium for providing this critical information. Combined with improved access to technical information for climate-smart agricultural practices, provided by services like Practical Answers, and accurate market information through platforms such as Agro-Mall, young farmers can leverage digital technologies to propel them towards viable agricultural businesses and livelihoods.

marula nut processingRenewable energy technologies are rapidly becoming evermore accessible and affordable for remote and low income consumers. Yet most attention to date has been paid to household energy access, for lighting, heating and cooling, and cooking. But the productive uses of energy are vital if we are to support youth to remain in agriculture. Systems such as solar-powered drip irrigation, like those used by communities supporting by the Sustainable Energy for Rural Communities project by Practical Action in Zimbabwe and Malawi, can not only significantly reduce the labour burden of farming, particularly for women whose role it often is to collect and use water, but also to utilise such natural resources more efficiently and effectively, improving both yields and sustainability. Renewable energy can also be transformative for value addition too, enabling the mechanised processing of goods, and improved storage options so that farmers can sell their goods at times when prices are highest.

Youth as changemakers

This gives great hope that young people, with their better education and higher ambitions, can see a positive future in agriculture – and concurrently that agriculture can see a positive future despite the challenges it faces, powered by the technologies used innovatively by young people.

I will follow up this blog with a short vlog after the Young Africa Works Summit, and I hope to share with you all many more exciting and positive ways technology can challenge poverty presented at the event.

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