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YALI Voices: Youth as Catalysts for Agricultural Transformation in Africa
December 3, 2018

As a young boy growing up on the Kano plains of Kisumu County in Western Kenya, I took care of my family’s herd of goats — it was a favorite pastime. My older brothers and cousins would wake up before sunrise to plough the fields, and every member of the family, young and old alike, was involved in various farming activities on the family land. The communal nature of the village meant that enough food was grown to feed the entire community, and that no child ever went hungry and was welcome to have a meal in any household within the village.

Youth and the Transformation of Agriculture in Africa
Victor Oloo on the maize farm where he grew up

The Kano plains are renowned for their irrigated rice fields. Rice farming is an intensive activity, and having no machinery or hired labor, family members were often the only source of labor. My brothers and I would brave the cold waters and leeches in the rice fields and join our parents in rice production activities from planting to harvesting. The involvement of the children in the household’s livelihood and food security was the case for every other family in our village.

Dwindling market prices, climate change and unpredictable weather patterns over the years have since seen many farmers in my home village abandon rice farming and caused rising food insecurity. This is not unique to my home village. The U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that “124 million people in 51 countries experience high levels of food insecurity.” With a growing population and an expected 60 percent expansion demand for agricultural products by 2050, the problem of inadequate food production is one that African countries will have to solve. Soon.

Youth and the Transformation of Agriculture in Africa
Victor’s Mother’s maize field right before harvest

The agriculture sector has been found to account for poverty reduction and, to that end, the African Union developed its Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP), a continental framework that aims to boost investment for agricultural transformation. With burgeoning youth populations and rising youth unemployment rates, the contribution by agriculture to poverty reduction will only be sustained by the inclusion of youth in the sector. However, some challenges facing the agriculture sector in Africa are low participation, low technical and entrepreneurial skills, limited opportunities, and inadequate awareness of agriculture by youth. With agriculture being the economic base for many African countries, it is a sector that can absorb the majority of unemployed youth as skilled and semi-skilled labor.

One of the main reasons for low participation by youth in agriculture is that most youth perceive agriculture as “uncool” and a profession for older people. This is especially true in Kenya, where the average age of a farmer is 61, and most youth are migrating to urban areas seeking employment that is often hard to come by. For youth to be attracted to agriculture, it is important for them to view agriculture as a viable, commercial activity and to see successful examples of smallholder farmers.

Youth and the Transformation of Agriculture in Africa
TV crew filming “Don’t Lose the Plot”

I have worked on different mass media projects that target youth to influence mindsets and attitudes on agriculture as a viable, commercial activity. Two projects I was involved with last year included a film about youth involvement in agribusiness in Tanzania and the first agriculture-based reality TV show that showcased the potential for high returns for youth in agribusiness. Following the successful broadcast of the reality TV show, an impact evaluation conducted in Kenya and Tanzania indicated that viewers of the TV show, aged 18–35, had a positive attitude toward farming as a profitable venture and employment alternative. This proves that using the right channels and given the right information, it is possible to increase youth involvement in agriculture and agribusiness.

As a youth myself, I have also recently become involved in agribusiness, growing sorghum for commercial purposes. As a communications specialist working for an agriculture development project, I have had the privilege of being exposed to individuals, youth included, who are running successful agribusinesses. This inspired me to change my own mindset and see agribusiness as a profitable, commercial venture when compounded with the right knowledge, skills, and technological inputs. I am what we in Kenya call a briefcase farmer; one who lives and works in an urban area but has a rural farm that they visit occasionally. While my agribusiness venture is still in its nascent stages, I am optimistic that it will soon yield returns on my modest investment.

I genuinely believe that a food secure Africa will not be a reality if the youth are excluded from the agriculture sector. It might take some time, but I believe that with strategic investments and involvement of youth in agriculture, we may one day see a return to the days when communities have a regular, abundant supply of food so that children can have a meal in any household, like when I was a boy.

Victor Oloo, 2014 Mandela Washington Fellow
Victor Oloo, 2014 Mandela Washington Fellow

About the Author:
Victor Oloo is a Mandela Washington Fellow (2014), an entrepreneur and communications and knowledge management specialist working in East and southern Africa. He is passionate about youth development, especially using multimedia tools like television, radio and social media to help create economic opportunities for youth in agribusiness across Africa.

The views and opinions expressed here belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the YALI Network or the U.S. government. YALI Voices is a series of podcasts, videos and blogs contributed by members of the YALI Network.