Agripreneurs may at last free Africa from hunger


Picture of Chiji Ojukwu
Chiji Ojukwu

Director of the Agriculture and Agro-Industries Department of the African Development Bank

Picture of Edson Mpyisi
Edson Mpyisi

Agricultural economist

Picture of Mariam Yinusa
Mariam Yinusa

Financial economist

Africa’s agricultural sector is replete with paradoxes. The majority of the continent’s 1.2 billion inhabitants live in rural areas where farming contributes up to 65% of livelihoods. Yet despite owning more than 60% of the world’s remaining arable land, Africa is still largely dependent on food imports, which reached $35bn in 2015 and could reach $110bn by 2025.

Tragic episodes of famine recur frequently to remind us of Africa’s untapped potential for food self-sufficiency. A host of challenges bridle the sector such as low productivity stemming from predominantly rain-fed subsistence farming techniques, restrictive land tenure systems and poor access to finance. Moreover, the little that is produced is often lost due to poor storage, processing and transportation infrastructure.

As the world’s youngest continent, Africa is home to nearly 420 million people between the ages of 15 and 35. But at the same time, youth unemployment rates are worrisomely high with only 3 million new formal jobs on offer for the 12 million young people entering the workforce each year.

Many of the disenchanted unemployed resort to dangerous alternative livelihoods. In 2017 alone, more than 2,000 young Africans lost their lives attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea in search of a better future in Europe, and terrorist groups have taken advantage of this situation to entice vulnerable youth into their ranks.

Creating decent employment opportunities for the next generation of Africans is clearly of critical importance both on the continent and elsewhere. It has become a matter of urgency that the younger generation be attracted to work in the agricultural sector.

It is a matter of urgency that the younger generation be attracted to agricultural work

Making farming “cool” has become an important priority for many African governments, development institutions and the private sector. During the Borlaug Dialogue earlier this month, Akinwumi Adesina, President of the African Development Bank (AfDB) and winner of the 2017 World Food Prize, dedicated his cash prize of $250,000 to support young African entrepreneurs in agriculture – agripreneurs.

Bringing young people into agriculture is perhaps the elusive key to attaining food security and launching commodity-based agro-industrialisation in Africa. But in today’s fast-paced digital world, many young people find traditional agriculture so unattractive it is generally an option of last resort. Drastic paradigm shifts are needed to unlock the entrepreneurial opportunities that lie along entire agricultural value chains from farm to fork.

Thanks to a revolution started by the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture (IITA) while launching the IITA Youth Agripreneurs (IYA) Programme in 2012, Africa’s youth is turning to technology for new and smart agricultural practices to seize opportunities, thereby triggering the much-needed modernisation of the sector. Mechanisation, ICT and mobile phones are quickly replacing the long back-breaking hours under the sun with hoes and cutlasses. In fact, young African agripreneurs are leapfrogging into very novel and innovative ICT solutions to age-old agricultural bottlenecks.

The rapid spread of mobile technology in Africa has made it the platform of choice for digital transformation. The GSM Association, the global representative body of mobile phone operators, estimates there are 557 million unique subscribers in Africa, a number likely to rise to 725 million by 2020. Across Africa, mobile phones are spurring innovative ideas and boosting incomes. The agricultural sector is no exception. Farmers now use them to check market prices before selling to middlemen, and market traders can accept payments using mobile money.

Many new agri-apps are developed and deployed by young Africans themselves. Rita Kimani is the co-founder and CEO of FarmDrive, an enterprise that works to better the livelihoods of smallholder farmers in Africa using new data­driven technology to improve access to financial capital. The app connects unbanked smallholder farmers to credit while helping financial institutions cost-effectively increase their agricultural loan portfolios. Other young agripreneurs are rolling out similar technologies in Botswana, Rwanda and Senegal and reaching hundreds of thousands of farmers with their services.

Drastic paradigm shifts are needed to unlock entrepreneurial opportunities

Similarly, in Ghana, young agripreneur Peter Awin founded CowTribe in 2014. CowTribe is a mobile technology platform that tracks movements of cattle herds and enables veterinarians to better deliver services to herdsmen using mobile phones. About 80% of poor families in Africa depend on livestock as a key source of livelihoods, yet 30% of livestock are lost each year due to disease outbreaks, accounting for about $4bn in agricultural losses, mostly from poor farmers.

Rebecca Nakubogo is another digital agriprenuer who heads the Ugandan Youth in Agribusiness association which created and manages a web-based market selling fruits and vegetables harvested in their 500-acre farm. Selling and delivering directly to customers means better price discovery and flexibility to quickly adapt to customer demand.

These are but a few examples of how young agripreneurs are digitally transforming Africa’s agriculture. There is no doubt that the agripreneur revolution is underway, but there is still more work to be done to ensure more youth agribusinesses succeed.

Low levels of technological uptake, limited access to land and finance for the youth and low internet and mobile penetration rates remain challenges that must be remedied. Institutions such as the AfDB, IITA, Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation, Nestle and MasterCard Foundation are partnering in various countries on initiatives to change the local youth’s perception of agriculture and support them in building exciting and profitable agribusinesses.

Initiatives such as the Technologies for Africa’s Agricultural Transformation (TAAT), an innovation-based response to the recognised need for scaling up proven technologies, the ENABLE Youth Program, which trains and supports young agripreneurs to set up their business, and Agrihack, which allows technologically-minded young people to pitch ideas, are working in the right direction to boost productivity and make Africa self-sufficient in key commodities.

This article is from the Development Policy Forum discussion paper ‘International development and the digital age’, in which international tech and development experts consider how to use new technologies to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals and generate ‘digital dividends’ for the developing world. The discussion paper will also build on the Policy Insight debate ‘Making the digital revolution work better, faster for development’, which was held on 7 November in Brussels.

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