Why Africa’s youth should not shun agriculture

How can young agricultural entrepreneurs make the most of the continent’s opportunities? Sir Gordon Conway of Agriculture for Impact reports on the Montpellier Panel’s latest report.

Gordon Conway

The time has come to debunk a common myth about agriculture. It is not a dead-end profession that requires eternal, back breaking labour on a farm. At least, it does not have to be. With the right investments to support entrepreneurs in agriculture beyond the production stage, in processing, retail, marketing and even business management, profitable careers await Africa’s young population.

Take the three graduates who started up the Shambani Graduate Enterprise (SGE) in Tanzania, for example. After finishing their studies at Sokoine University of Agriculture, the three young entrepreneurs started off with one milk supplier and an initial processing capacity of 30 litres. Today, their plant receives milk from over 200 suppliers and has a processing capacity of 750 litres, producing cultured, fresh and flavoured milk. Business is booming and they have not set foot on a farm.

Not all food jobs are farm jobs: a coconut processing plant in Mozambique.

Another myth plagues discussions on African development – that Africa’s population boom can only spell disaster. Instead of viewing these increased populations as mouths to feed, should we not view them as people to occupy jobs producing food?

Reportage

By 2040, Africa’s workforce could be one billion strong. Successful businesses are driven by demand, and Africa’s swelling population moving into cities and smaller towns creates an unprecedented demand for businesses producing varied, nutritious and processed food.

To capitalize on this young workforce and untapped potential for agribusinesses across the continent, the time has come to foster robust businesses that can not only provide food for Africa, but jobs and wealth for young entrepreneurs.

Cover image of ‘Small and Growing: entrepreneurship in African agriculture’ reportMontpelier Panel
‘Small and Growing: entrepreneurship in African agriculture’ is the latest report from the Montpelier Panel.

The latest report from the Montpellier Panel of experts in agriculture and development sets out recommendations on how African countries can turn these misconceptions from obstacles to opportunities.

The first step, according to the report, is to realise how much of the work involved in bringing food to the table happens past the farm gate. When an agricultural value chain (that is, the journey food goes through from the research lab all the way to the food on your plate) is fully developed, an abundance of jobs exist in processing, packaging, transporting, distributing and marketing food.

The issue is that these agricultural value chains are still in their infancy in Africa. If the right investments are made to help agricultural value chains grow, job opportunities and economic growth will follow.

What are the right investments?

The Montpellier Panel believes there are three crucial areas that require attention for donors and governments.

The first is education. Farming must be seen as a business in order to thrive, so it is essential that people, particularly youth and women, have access to vocational training that will equip them with business skills. Courses that empower people to create their own marketing strategies and long term business plans, as well as master book keeping and banking will be vital to encourage a new crop of entrepreneurs.

Women entrepreneurs in South Africa given training by the Clinton Global Initiative’s 5by20 commitment.

Second, a lack of access to finance is also a key sticking point for people wishing to either start or scale up an agricultural business. Farming is a risky business, which often hinders people receiving loans. The Montpellier Panel argues that if lenders take into account the viability of the whole value chain in which an agricultural entrepreneur operates, sharing the risk among other actors should allow borrowers to benefit from higher lending at better rates. Furthermore, it is important to create a range of financial products that cater to the ‘missing middle’, that is businesses that have outgrown microfinance, but are not yet able to use commercial banks.

Finally, no entrepreneurial revolution will take place if the political will is not there to support young businesses. This means governments have to put in place appropriate economic policies and financial incentives that will encourage people to get their businesses started. Education programmes and infrastructure to support a booming regional agricultural market must be supported.

Africa’s youth must not shun agriculture; with the right support, the sector can be transformed into a profitable business. It can not only provide food for the continent, but provide jobs, wealth and ultimately, economic growth. This is a future the Montpellier Panel is eager to see and believes is well within reach.

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About Sir Gordon Conway

Sir Gordon Conway is the chair of the Montpellier Panel, a group of European and African experts from the fields of agriculture, trade ecology and global development. Since March 2010, the Panel has worked together to make recommendations to enable better European government support of national and regional agricultural development and food security priorities in sub-Saharan Africa.

Sir Gordon Conway is also a Professor of International Development at Imperial College and Director of independent advocacy initiative Agriculture for Impact, which acts as the convenor for the Montpellier Panel.

6 thoughts on “Why Africa’s youth should not shun agriculture

  1. This material is new to me and its presence is much appreciated as clearly,the 54 nations of Africa certainly require an industrialisation based on Agricultural Technology as UNIDO have observed along with JICA for Kenya.
    Now that UK is formulating its Agri-Tech Strategy it is certainly important for UK to have an Afican focus based on Ag Tech.
    Support for these linkages is fundamental to the needs of UK & AFRICA.
    Thank You Graham

  2. Until people pay a higher price for food, farming and working in almost any part of the food chain seems bound to remain unattractive. Higher food prices, passed up the value chain, will stimulate investment, improve rural incomes and reduce poverty and related hunger. And they will also send signals to consumers to cut food waste and over-consumption, taking pressure off natural resources and slowing farming’s contribution to climate change. Now that there is proven success of social protection programmes in countries at all different stages of development, policies that lead to a progressive rise in food prices become feasible. See my note on the subject at: http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/06/higher-food-prices-can-help-to-end-hunger-malnutrition-and-food-waste/ Headey’s work at IFPRI provides good evidence tat higher food prices cut poverty in the long run

  3. Thank you for your comments.

    Graham: I agree that it is important for the UK and other European countries to look at how they can support African agriculture most effectively. Certainly, the support of locally appropriate agricultural technologies should be one such measure, but also alongside broader support for market development and training so that the results of improved productivity and resilience (from the use of technologies) can benefit those who need it.

    Andrew: Yes, it may certainly be the case that food prices simply need to be higher, but markets in general in Africa also require help in making them better connected, more efficient and more accessible, especially to smallholder farmers.

  4. Having read the Montepellier report, and carrying out my doctoral research in the field of youth and African agriculture, I am impressed by the increasing interest in the subject. In due course, there will enough research to validate some of the claims being made. Of concern, Prof. Gordon Conway, which I would like to see addressed, is the absence of the question of: what kind of agriculture are we encouraging young people to undertake? What kind in the sense that, with climate change, we need to be adopting climate smart practices and innovations. In my fieldwork of youth-agriculture projects, this is missing. The future of youth-agriculture is already bleak. We need to be smart in this subject.

  5. Dear Grace,

    Thank you for your important comment. Yes, it is very important to understand what kind of agriculture it is that youth in Africa should be undertaking.

    This question is addressed quite substantially in an earlier Montpellier Panel report from 2013 entitled “Sustainable Intensification: A New Paradigm for African Agriculture”. This report can be accessed here:
    http://ag4impact.org/publications/montpellier-panel-report2013/

    And while there are many challenges to face with regard to youth involvement in agriculture, there are also many opportunities — as long as they are seized. Thank you for being part of this effort.

  6. Thank you for picking up this important topics. As I am also interested in this topics, I wrote an review article entitled Livestock entrepreneurship… Ethiopia.
    Habtamu Lemma

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