Author: Professor Kay Leresche, Chair of the RUFORUM Technical Committee

New technologies, expanding populations, urbanisation and more varied diets all coalesce to set the stage for opportunities that will enable Africa to take advantage of its youth dividend and meet the aspirations of Agenda 2063, “The Africa We Want”.

The current world agrifood system is inadequate – 815 million people hungry, 2 billion micronutrient deficient, and 700 million obese (108 million children) and yet the system still has high levels of waste and is depleting our natural capital.  We need to find new ways to meet these growing food needs without undermining our futures.  Africa is currently importing much of its food and with the population in Africa expected to double from 1.26 billion in 2017 to 2.5 billion in 2050 (and 4.5 billion in 2100).  This means that the demand for food will more than double as incomes increase and as a result of urbanisation[1].  There are also opportunities for significantly increasing agricultural value added with increased demand for inputs, processing, packaging and transportation and global demand provide greater opportunities for agricultural exports.  There are many challenges but locally relevant new technologies and approaches, including systems for collaborative consumption, give hope.  This is particularly true for Africa where, together with our natural resources and young population, rapidly improving access to energy, emerging technologies, communications and asset sharing there is potential for significant growth.  Africa can fill the gap created by increased demand from rising populations, urbanisation and diversification of diets as incomes rise.  The youth are currently under-employed and it is estimated that 43%–‐63% of unpaid family-based jobs are held by youth (Yeboah and Jayne 2017).

We need to ignite the imagination of young people to seize new technologies to become proactive and engaged.  And we need to stimulate governments to invest in agriculture, boost human capital and knowledge, improve communication infrastructure and access, and ensure an environment that supports and encourages African youth to play a lead role in positioning African agriculture into the global knowledge economy.  Some of the most important mobile phone initiatives now used throughout the world have originated in Africa this Century – we need to keep this up and be sure to scale these out across the continent and to continue to adapt to a changing world.

Agriculture remains central to economies in Africa and still employs more than half the population and accounts for 15% of GDP (varying from 3% in Botswana to 50% in Chad, FAO, 2016).  The crop sector dominates accounting for 85% of production ranging from 50% in Southern Africa to 90% in Western Africa.  Smallholder farms employ 175 million people directly and account for 80% of all the farms. Over 95 percent of Kenya’s fresh fruits and vegetables are produced for domestic markets largely by an informal value chain of smallholders and SMEs, although export sector is dominated by the formal sector. Since the majority of the poor are in rural areas, increasing agriculture productivity and value addition not only is essential for economic development, it is strongly linked to reducing poverty.  It also benefits the youth where in low-income African countries 70% of the youth are employed in agriculture and 18% in services, and even in middle income countries 55% is employed in agriculture and 30% in services (Filmer and Fox, 2014).

African agriculture is at a low base.[2]  Yields for most crops are five times lower than potential yields.  However to bring these yields to 80% of their potential by 2050 would require significantly increasing the rate of growth in yields e.g. maize would have to double the average yield increases in the first decade of 21st Century (agronomic yield gap analysis in Ittersum et al., 2016). Water stress, seed quality, pests and disease are major limiting factors to increased yields.  Post-harvest losses with weak market linkages and institutions negatively affect the profitability of agriculture.  A significant investment in developing and sharing knowledge that will improve smallholder farming is required.  If yields are to increase, the market links need to be much more effective to provide these farmers with access to information, inputs, storage, processing, markets and finance.   The farmers will only adopt those technologies that improve their livelihoods. There is research and knowledge available on how to sustainably increase yields and profitability on small farms but there has been a strong disconnect in establishing the links that can achieve this.  The upside is that there are also increasing opportunities through the technology revolution to make it more attractive and lucrative for young people to take up these opportunities and engage in agriculture.

Not only is there a large vent for increasing yields, there is still uncultivated land available for expansion[3] although this potential for extensive agricultural increases are unevenly distributed across countries.  You et al in AGRA (2017) estimate that there is potential for irrigated area to triple to 21m ha (other estimates indicate it could quadruple to 39m). There is thus potential to massively increase agricultural output and its profitability. It will need to if it is to catalyse the growth that will improve livelihoods, food security and employment and meet the Sustainable Development Goals which aim to end poverty and hunger, fight inequality, tackle climate change and protect natural resources, among other objectives. The World Bank estimates that agriculture and agribusiness together could triple in size from US$313 billion in 2010 to US$ 1 trillion by 2030 (World Bank, 2013)

However Africa has been losing competitiveness in agriculture which is the sector with the most potential for growth.  We need to find ways to improve Total Factor Productivity across the agrifood systems.  We can do this with “advances in science and technology; the creation of regional markets; and the emergence of a new crop of entrepreneurial leaders dedicated to the continent’s economic improvement” (Juma, 2015). Research and development specific to the continent’s varied ecosystems and crops has been chronically neglected, as has infrastructure and education for the agricultural system and to support farmers.  Universities must stimulate the youth to play a lead role in improving agrifood systems; whether an improved seed variety, a green initiative, a new mobile app or a creative business model, the power of a few good ideas should not be underestimated.  The Universities need to adapt their teaching and research models to provide much greater links between students, faculty and surrounding communities and stakeholders.  Creative ideas that encourage local development need to be encouraged and rewarded.  Universities need to find ways to make it more attractive for their faculty to be actively engaged in society, to be innovative in their approaches to education, so that new graduates will be adaptive and show initiative and leadership.  We don’t know what jobs our students will be doing by 2030, never mind by 2050.  The world is changing fast and it is thus essential that they learn how to access knowledge and how to apply it.  They need to develop a culture of life-time learning, adaptability and innovation.

There is enormous potential for growth of agriculture, agribusiness and rural areas as the energy gap in Africa is addressed.  It provides the opportunity for innovation, green technology, leapfrogging and climate-smart investments. New ICTs, especially the increasing spread of cell phones and smart phones, provide new opportunities for innovations in communal consumption systems for renting, crowd-sourcing and sharing assets; of working together co-operatively without free-rider issues eg. dairy-hubs, HelloTractor, and many others.  There is scope for innovations in technologies both on the genetic frontier and in the acceleration of technologies that can revolutionise smallholder farming.  Whether the youth are involved in the development of new technologies (varieties, machinery etc) or whether they are involved in partnerships with universities, research centres and others to strengthen the uptake of the technologies, there are many new avenues for engagement.  For technologies already out but which are not available in their own communities, graduates can apply for distribution licences e.g. hippo rollers, portable water pumps, small tractors, orange sweet potatoes (nutrient enriched products), specialised sealable bags to improve storage, solar dryers, specialised processing systems, mud silos, innovative ways to use gum Arabic for fruit preservation and a wealth of new and simple ways to improve productivity.  They can be involved in developing or in the marketing or training.  Help African agriculture respond to the high, if often latent, demand for digital innovations e.g. digital soil mapping, asset sharing platforms, weather apps, animal monitoring (e.g.iCow), veterinary and farm advisory platforms and market services, financial services, e-vouchers etc.  Electronic wallets provide support that also triggers other agribusinesses and services; disaster and risk management systems paid through labour or cash.

There is a role for the youth.  There is still a long way to go in terms of adoption and reach of these platforms that enable financial inclusion[4], better connect farmers, traders and consumers and that help to empower small farmers and processors through information.  Mobile services enable farmers to access and share information from an expert call centre, via SMS, via interactive voice response and by links to data sources.  They strengthen the links in the value chain and will improve the productivity of African agrisystems.  Graduates can market these technologies, train and transfer skills, themselves keep learning and searching, adapt Apps to their own circumstances and to commodities that are not locally served, create new Apps where they see a need, be the link between farmer and markets, provide two-way data and information charging both ends, not just with agriculture – but also in other areas- nutrition, health, education.  And even go out and contact large wholesalers or factories that may be interested in setting up mobile processing units which could improve the consistency and quality of supplies (e.g. breweries, food factories etc).  The Youth can work with local farmers associations to set up co-operative for specialised facilities, e.g. milk chilling, and get the big companies to help with bridging finance.

The potential is there, Africa needs you to take up these opportunities – use your bright young minds, your dedication and your leadership. Click here to download the full AGM 2017 digest.

[1] The urban population of Sub-Saharan Africa is projected to double by 2030, and with per capita income growing by 4 percent per year, urban food markets are set to quadruple. Africa’s farmers need to be ready to supply this demand

[2] productivity per agricultural worker has improved by a factor of only 1.6 in Africa over the past 30 years, compared to 2.5 in Asia

[3] Estimates vary on uncultivated land available for crop production – 800m ha (FAO 2009 in FAO 2017) but this land includes grazing areas and land left fallow for rotation. Deininger and Byerlee 2011 – put potential uncultivated land at double that currently in production in Africa –  450m that is not forested or conservation land.

[4] Africa’s mobile money market was valued at over $60bn in 2012, Forbes 2013

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