For ages agriculture in Africa was done the old way, but times are a changing

In parts of the continent, youth are back in force on the farming agenda

It’s a scene not many in the small village outside Embu county, in Kenya, have seen. Cameras, sound systems and lights are being set up in one corner of a shamba (farm in Kiswahili). In another corner, stands Tonny Njuguna and Naomi Kamau, the presenters of the hit make-over style reality TV show Shamba Shape Up, running lines together.

But, this isn’t the unusual thing – it’s Kioko and Peter, the two brothers who own and farm this land, and the recipients of the TV show’s “make-over”, who stand out. These brothers are both under 30, and have left their jobs in the city to come back to their home and make money from farming. In a country where the average age of a farmer is sixty, these brothers are making an unusual choice; one that many of their peers see as a step backwards.

“Kioko came back first”, Peter tells the Shamba Shape Up cameras. “I was working as a mechanic in Nairobi after finishing university, yet he was the brother making the money in the family!”

The two brothers are a great find for the production team of Shamba Shape Up – too often they can’t find a young farmer to film in an area, and instead use older couples. Kioko laughs when the presenters ask him how easy it was to change from businessman to cattle expert. “The farming is easy!”, he said, “It was convincing my parents to let me take over the shamba that was the problem!”

Kioko highlights one of the biggest problems facing young farmers, both in Kenya and all over the African continent. To the older generation of farmers who still own and farm the land, it provides them not only with a homestead, but also a food source, a business and a livelihood. Some do not trust their children to take it over from them - others want their children to, but the young ones are unwilling.

Food needs rising

The Food & Agriculture Organisation says that by 2050, the world will need a third more food to feed itself, and Africa must rise to the challenge to provide it. With three growing seasons every year (in comparison to Europe’s one) and 70% of Africa’s workforce made up by farmers, it could be seen as an achievable goal.

Yet, with farms getting smaller as families divide up land between their children, their problems get bigger. A lack of steady information mean farmers rarely hear of new developments in vaccines, and fake fertilisers sold at high prices hinder farmers instead of helping them and soil which is exhausted of nutrients; these setbacks only add to the already pathetic picture.

When success is finally reached and a farmer harvests a healthy crop it is often too small a yield to sell to any large buyer. Farmers who band together in groups often have more luck at finding a better price – yet this again leads to issues with finding suitable transport, navigating pot-holed roads and avoiding dodgy deals.

In most cases, youths are put off returning to the farm by the image that farming has acquired; dirty, ragged, underpaid and most of all, boring. In Ghana, local extension officers say that young people have seen their aging parents go through the traumatic experience of farming using basic equipment, only encouraging them to opt to settle in urban areas in search of employment.

Change is coming

However, despite the negative connotations surrounding farming, it is clear that times are changing. As 10 million East African tune in weekly to watch Shamba Shape Up, you only need to look at their 42,000 strong Facebook page to realise that youth engagement is on the up.

Time and time again young, interested farmers ask the same question: “how can I get the funds to start my own farming business?” But with only nine of Africa’s 54 counties to date investing 10% of their national budgets in agriculture, monetary help from governments isn’t something to be relied on.

And it isn’t just money that young farmers are seeking, it is information too. When agriculture was taken off the Kenyan curriculum for primary aged children and made only an optional subject in secondary over ten years ago, many viewed this move as playing down the importance of agriculture in the country’s future.

Many urban children, who 15 years ago were learning how to keep, breed and then slaughter an animal as part of their education, are now less likely to even see livestock such as this, let alone handle. In West African schools, the Farmers of the Future project aims to tackle the similar problems of a lack of agriculture in schools by developing an after school class for children to join.

To make up for the lagging momentum offered by Africa’s governments, international aid agencies and foundations have become increasingly interested in agricultural investment, with a doubling of funds in the sector in the last 10 years. African philanthropic foundation TrustAfrica has been actively supporting an advocacy movement across the continent to ensure sustainable and equitable agricultural development.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation introduced the “Green Revolution” to Africa with the hope of increasing agricultural productivity over the continent as a whole. The FAO named 2014 the “International Year of the Family Farmer” with goals made to raise the profile of family farming. African Enterprise Challenge Fund has been conducting competitions for funding for for-profit start-ups, mainly directed at youths, in the field of agriculture.

Projects like the Young Professionals of Agricultural Development and Farm Africa, both Africa-wide groups, are providing youths with loans to help turn their dreams into a business. While social media keeps up with Facebook pages like “Mkulima Young” to dish out advice from one young farmer to another, connecting youths often from different countries, yet all facing the same problems.

Kofi Annan, former UN Secretary General, recently wrote a nine-point plan to make Africa more food-secure and profitable. He asks the question “how [can] a continent, with 60% of the world’s uncultivated arable land, still suffers from malnutrition and hunger, yet spends $35 billion every year importing food?” When a continent has both the highest rate of unemployment in young people and also a farming industry in need of a stronger, fitter and younger workforce, it is clear that something must change.

Article from our agriculture ebook, in partnership with TrustAfrica, which can be found here…

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