AGRICULTURE | YOUTH
By Moses Ariong
The world population is expected to reach nine billion by 2050 and this poses a major challenge to food security, if productivity does not match population demands.
Africa is being viewed as the next food basket of the world due to the vast arable land and huge irrigation potential. Yet, Africa still fails to feed itself to date due to low adoption of improved farming technologies such as the use of improved seed, fertilisers and irrigation. Worse still, young people seem to undervalue the role of agriculture as the major income source among 80% of Africa's farming population - small holders.
As an Aspen New Voices fellow (2017) and a young person engaged in agriculture and livelihoods promotion in Africa, I was invited to speak at the World Food Price 2017 Borlaug dialogue at Des Moines, Iowa state in the US. Together with a nutritionist from CGIAR, an Agriculture policy expert from FANPRAN, an agriprenur from Mali and Ugandas 2016 best young farmer award winner, we interrogated the challenges affecting young farmers in Africa and how to attract them towards engaging in Agriculture as a business - in a panel moderated by the vice president AGRA.
My submission was that three questions are being asked by the young people of Africa for which they desperately need answers; does Agriculture pay enough for one to lead a sustainable livelihood? Can I practice agriculture in a dignified way such that I am respected by my peers and my community? Is agriculture a reliable venture to invest in - looking at the numerous shocks and losses that farmers incur from weather vagaries and post-harvest loses?
Many young people view agriculture as a risky enterprise that does not pay well, especially in the absence of credit providers, insurance on crop and livestock loses and a reliable market for agriculture products. One of the young sweet potato farmers I recently interacted with in Amuria district was highly disappointed with the outcome of the hard work he had put to grow two acres of sweet potatoes.
Okwi had invested about sh300,000 to heap, plant and manage the field for three months. He had hoped to get about sh1m to meet his school fees requirements and household needs - Okwi is the eldest son in a family of 7 children and doubles as the bread winner in his family. Okwis' potatoes did well upon receiving good rains.
However, the market he had targeted - supplying sweet potatoes to Kenya, did not materialise. His potatoes were picked up by middlemen who paid sh30,000 a basin for a full sack of potatoes! He was helpless and cut a frustrated face when I interacted with him.
"I have wasted a lot of time and money, but now I am going to lose. No wonder some of my friends do not want to venture into agriculture," he said. Okwi was not able to even recover his costs of production and some of his potatoes ended up rotting in the garden when he refused to give them away to the seemingly greedy middlemen.
Okwi and many other farmers have suffered from the burden of high input costs, unreliable markets and weather shocks that have proven demoralising to some farmers. Yet middlemen walk away smiling every year as they offer farmers low prices for their hard earned produce. However, Okwis' testimony is an opportunity for organisations and individuals engaged in agriculture promotion to prove that agriculture pays despite the bad season that he had experienced.
One of these is One Acre Fund Uganda that has been running trials on market access improvement for Busoga maize farmers to address the challenge of marketing produce. Together with the agriculture input credit that this organization and few others offer to the farmers and a guarantee of weather assistance and appropriate agriculture trainings, I believe that young people will soon find their way in to farming as a business.
The future in agriculture programming is, therefore, promising if we focus on working with young people that dominate this country. Infact, Uganda happens to have the youngest population on the planet with a median age of 15.8 years. This calls for an urgent shift of focus by development actors towards prioritising young people and ways to involve them across the agriculture value chain.
Yes, working with young people is risky. Someone once said that young people worry, often complain and make mistakes. It is true that we do all these things. We may be risky to do business with, but we are the most energetic, passionate and curious individuals who can guarantee the future of agriculture in Uganda.
The writer is agriculture and environment expert and an Aspen New Voices fellow