Investments in Youth and Science to combat Hunger in Africa

Swanepoel Photo (3)
Professor Frans Swanepoel, Future Africa at the Centre for Advancement of Scholarship at the University of Pretoria, South Africa.

The African Union has announced 2017 as the year to invest in the demographic dividend of the continent – “its youth”.

Two hundred and twenty-seven million of the world’s chronically hungry live in Africa. This translates to approximately 30% of this group globally.

Seven out of ten people living in sub-Saharan Africa are farmers (compared to that of the United States, where the ratio is two out of a hundred.) Africa holds 30% of global arable land, yet it only accounts for 10% of global agricultural output. This shortfall is largely due to low use of modern agricultural tools, techniques and technologies. The continent is considered the “youngest” region with sixty percent of the potential workforce of around 600 million people under the age of 25. And yet Africa has to rely on imports and food aid to feed itself. Believed to be the poorest continent in the world, it spends about $50 billion a year buying food from rich countries.

Agriculture will need to provide food, but also secure incomes. If done right agriculture can provide nutritious food for all and generate decent incomes, while supporting people-centred rural development and protecting the environment. Furthermore, agriculture is the single largest employer in the world, providing livelihoods for 40% of today’s global population, and it is the largest source of income and jobs for poor rural households.

Major improvements in increased yields and food production have been achieved globally. More cereals have been produced annually during the past 40 years than in any earlier period, and it is predicted that more grain will be harvested in 2017 than in any previous year in history. Major improvements have also been recorded in Africa. These increases in reducing hunger are driven by improved seed varieties, new fertilisers and pesticides, improved credit, and market access and scientific innovations.

Science can and should drive transformation of agriculture in Africa. A notable recent example includes specific nutritional challenges such as Vitamin A deficiency, the main cause of preventable childhood blindness. Robert Mwanga was awarded the 2016 World Food Prize for inspirational work that resulted in the large-scale substitution of white sweet potato (low in Vitamin A) by a Vitamin A-rich alternative in the diets of Uganda’s rural poor. Scientific solutions for agricultural transformation need to be pursued with vigour, while recognising the fragility of African environments, its rich biodiversity and the complexity of agricultural production systems across the continent.

Investments in research and development (R&D) in collaboration with global partners are vital. The Copenhagen Consensus state that investment of an extra $88 billion in agricultural R&D over the next 15 years would increase crop yields by 0,4% each year, which could save 80 million people from hunger and prevent five million children from malnutrition.

Africa is the world’s most youthful continent. Each year, over 11 million young Africans are entering the job market — but not the workforce. The continent is facing a double employment crisis: both a lack of jobs for youth, and an increasing number of young people in need of work. Across 34 countries on the continent, people regard unemployment as the top challenge facing their nations. Agriculture, the largest sector of employment in Africa, promises opportunities for job growth and economic prosperity. But transforming it into a modern, sustainable and profitable sector will require overcoming constraints that hamper competitiveness and growth. Youth are at the forefront of championing the innovative technological, gender-aware, and climate-smart approaches that will help grow and modernize agriculture.

Agricultural transformation in Africa needs to employ climate-smart agricultural techniques in order to be sustainable, efficient and profitable. Youth are uniquely poised to understand and use new climate-smart technologies to respond to the challenges posed by climate change.

Women in agriculture on the continent face unique barriers as a result of gender norms, both formal and informal, that creates and reinforces inequality. As a result of these gender disparities, productivity on women’s farms is significantly lower than on men’s farms. The FAO estimates that if women were given the same access to productive resources as men, they could increase agricultural production on their farms by up to 30%.  Mechanisms and approaches are needed to build gender-sensitive agricultural systems in Africa.

Modernising agriculture in Africa will require treating farming as a business and providing an enabling environment for youth to access modern, appropriate agricultural and digital technologies to disrupt and transform the sector. The suitable use of such technologies will increase productivity, and access to markets and incomes of young farmers and “agripreneurs”. This will attract educated youth to take up farming as a business and providing an enabling environment for them to access technology, training and finance.

This calls for nurturing of agribusiness skills, innovations and capacities of farming population to engage in agriculture value chains, and create new agro-processing industries, grow employment opportunities, raise productivity and competitiveness, and radically transform African agricultural sector to enable the continent to feed itself and be a major player in the global food economy. A novel direction would have to be elaborated in the development of these skills to nurture agripreneurs. It is in this context where universities have a major role to play. RUFORUM is taking the lead to guide continental efforts towards transforming university curricula and strengthening institutions to accomplish this challenging, but critically important role. 

I participated in the MasterCard Young Africa Works Summit in Rwanda earlier this year. The summit brought together more than 300 policy makers, academics, business leaders and young agripreneurs to find ways to achieve sustainable and meaningful livelihoods for youth in the agricultural sector; and more specifically to discuss ways to empower youth to become the drivers of agricultural transformation in Africa. Following two days of rigorous debates it was concluded that agriculture is the mainstay of the continent. Agriculture is expected to create nine million jobs by 2020, with the potential for up to fifteen million. Agricultural growth can be twice as effective in reducing poverty as growth in any other sector of the economy. Investment in agricultural innovation can end rural poverty and guarantee food security. Investments in empowerment through education and training of the youth are critical for the continent’s future. There is need for a much higher skill-level and more systematic private sector engagement in developing appropriate curriculum for formal and informal courses and providing opportunities for youth to get more meaningful practical experience and training.

This could be accomplished in several ways: incl. identifying the broad areas to be developed in partnership with the main stakeholders; facilitating the necessary transformation and strengthening of national science and technology institutions, incl. universities; focus on the need for human capacity building at all levels; facilitate increased funding from diversified sources to support agripreneurship; facilitate alignment of actions and resources to ensure value-for-money and impact; facilitate effective partnerships among mandated African institutions at sub-regional/regional levels and between these actors and their external and global partners; committing to solidarity in science to support agriculture by sharing information, technologies, information, facilities and staff in pursuit of common challenges and opportunities; and creating favourable policy environment for agricultural transformation.

These actions will lead to better harmonized investments in and approaches to support agricultural science by national governments, and regional and international development agencies/partners to accelerate food production. A more productive, efficient and competitive agriculture sector is critical to improve rural economies, where the majority of the population in Africa live. The future of Africa depends on agriculture. Click here to download the AGM Digest.

Frans Swanepoel is Professor: Future Africa at the Centre for Advancement of Scholarship at the University of Pretoria, South Africa. He is a Visiting Fellow at the Institute for African Development at Cornell University, USA. He serves on the board of the Food Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Analysis Network (FANRPAN); and the steering committee of the African Women in Agricultural Research and Development (AWARD).

This is our seventh issue in a series of articles we are releasing as part of our RUFORUM AGM Digests. You can get more details about the meeting at and more information about RUFORUM at You many also join us online using Social Media for real time updates. Our Official hashtag is #Visioning2030


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