Investing in youth today, Africa needs a new agricultural revolution

There are more young people in Africa than ever before — over two-thirds of the continent’s one billion people are under 30.

Despite increased migration to cities, most of Africa’s young people still live in rural areas. And most, whether rural or urban, are unemployed.

To build a continent where people can work and live with a degree of prosperity, we must invest more resources in the land — and in the young who live there. Together, these are Africa’s greatest assets.

Seven out of 10 Africans earn their living by farming. It is the backbone of most of our economies. The market for African staple foods like maize, milk, meat, banana, sorghum, rice and millet is estimated at over $150 billion a year.

This market is far larger than the export market for internationally traded African cash crops like coffee, tea, and flowers.

Yet, even at this critical time of high unemployment, farming is not receiving the attention it needs to create jobs.

Agriculture remains a small-scale, rain-fed, low-tech, low-input, and low-output enterprise. For the most part, farming practices haven’t changed in generations.

Transformative role

Lack of support to improve productivity and bring innovation into the sector has, in many ways, pushed our young people away from business opportunities in agriculture and into more attractive sectors like information and communication technology or finance.

The ICT and mobile phone revolution occurring across Africa, and the millions of jobs that opened up as a result, highlight the transformative role the continent’s youth can play in development.

Using some of these technologies, our young farmers can play a transformative part.

To make agriculture attractive to the young, it needs greater resources — for education, infrastructure, for improving the business environment, and for agriculture in ways that will raise incomes and expand the agricultural value chain.

The viability of African agriculture relies on the action of people at all levels. But leaders should do more to spur private-sector participation in farms of different sizes as well as in agro-processing and support services such as finance and machinery-rental services.

It is not tenable that agriculture that employs 70 per cent of Africa’s population, accounts for 35 per cent of GDP and 40-50 per cent of exports, but receives barely 2 per cent of commercial bank lending.

African governments should do everything possible to provide adequate budgetary resources and put in place financial mechanisms that will mobilise internal resources and direct them to this important sector of the economy.

One key need is investment in higher education — not just in agricultural sciences, but for training in business, marketing, finance, policymaking and engineering, to create new generations of professionals who can build Africa’s agro-industrial capacity.

New vision

This should include a major focus on technical institutes that produce mid-level technicians.

We must also invest in transport and ICT infrastructure to enhance the competitiveness of agriculture and build trade across the continent. At present, it is often cheaper to import from faraway continents than neighbouring countries.

Non-tariff trade barriers have slowed regional trade within Africa even as the continent imports a growing percentage of its food from the rest of the world.

These have to be removed. The feeding of Africa is a huge market opportunity; one that can create millions of badly needed jobs.

African leaders should also start looking at agriculture as a business and farmers as small businessmen.

By creating greater land tenure security and clarifying property rights, especially for women, African countries can encourage smallholder farmers to invest in technologies and practices that enhance the productivity of their land.

All this will be possible only if African governments put in place policies and regulations as well as stable policy and macroeconomic environment to improve the business environment for more private sector participation in the agricultural value chain including input supply, medium and large commercial farming, agro-processing and support services such as finance and machinery rental services.

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