It is a sad fact that there is massive youth unemployment and underemployment in Africa, with the World Bank reporting that youth constitute over 60% of African’s unemployed population. This challenge is getting worse by the day, with the many more youth entering into the dwindling job market every year.

While the continent is said to be growing economically, there is a huge mismatch between that growth and the number of youth who are becoming eligible for employment annually. In Kenya for instance, while there are over five hundred thousand young people who graduate from various tertiary and vocational training institutions annually, the economy is hardly creating 50% of jobs to match those numbers. One then may ask, what happens to those huge numbers of youth who do not get absorbed into the job market year in year out? This trend does not just pose an economic problem but it has huge social and political implications, which necessitate urgent attention.

The second challenge the continent faces today is the inability to feed its growing population. A recent report by the United Nations Commission for Africa showed that Africa imports over 80% of its food requirements annually. These imports are estimated to be worth about 50 billion US Dollars, an amount equivalent to what is received as development aid.

Coincidentally, these two challenges also happen to hold the biggest potential for the continent, and are yet to be fully utilized. The two should be converted from challenges into opportunities. In development, availability of a young and fairly educated pool human resource should not be seen as a burden but a potential catalyst for growth. Projections show that the youth population will remain high in the foreseeable future. A lot of jobs need to be created for this burgeoning group. Next to this vast pool of labour is the vast and underutilized area of arable land in the continent, reported to be adequate to serve as the global food source.

This situation therefore begs the questions, why is the continent not converting these twin challenges into social and economic opportunities, and becoming the leading global food supplier as opposed to the net importer it is today? Why not use the opportunity to create millions of agricultural related jobs for the unemployed youth? What are the obstacles hampering the realization of this seemingly straight forward solution? In my view, great focus should be paid on the following areas, which I believe act as the main obstacles to enhanced agricultural production and youth engagement.

Societal attitude towards farming
Many African youth grow up in rural farming families, which mainly practice subsistence farming with little or no adoption of technology. This kind of farming is highly dependent of manual Labour, and often has very poor returns. The challenges associated with this kind of farming, hardly inspires the youth to see a future in such an endeavor. Often, this makes them associate farming with poverty and backwardness. Many youth would rather migrate to the cities to undertake odd or casual jobs than stay in the rural homes, and be seen to be backward for undertaking farming. As a matter of fact, even the older parents would rather see their sons and daughters move to the cities than having them become the laughing stock of the village! It is such a huge but unforeseen societal force.

These acquired and deeply entrenched attitudes within the entire society have to change, for the youth to start getting interested in agricultural sector. There are emerging trends that need to be amplified further to challenge and hopefully reverse the attitude. Lately, there are mass media programs working towards showing the good tidings associated with modern/ smart farming that can be undertaken by the youth, even at a small scale level. Two cases in point are Kenyan TV programs “Smart Farm” by Citizen Television and “Seeds of Gold” by NTV. There are other new TV and Radio Channels that are dedicating almost entire days to promote modern farming. We are also seeing numerous online platforms aimed at getting the youth’s attention into farming. It should not be a surprise to find on twitter and Facebook, trending hashtags such as #Farmingiscool and #Ukulimasioushamba (meaning farming is not equal to backwardness). These efforts need to be scaled up to fully erode the negative perceptions that youth have held for a long time about farming.

Land tenure
Majority of the arable land in Africa is owned privately, mainly by the older generation. The land owners are mainly older men, who hold a conservative attachment to land and its usage prevents the these important resource from being used productively. Many young Africans hardly have access to land that they can use for commercial farming. However, there are many cases where determined youth have gained access to land either by convincing their older parents that they can use it more gainfully or by getting into lease agreements with landowners (sometimes even their own parents) with idle or underutilized land.

There are innovations coming up where youth are converting small spaces into productive land through technologies such as vertical farming. Greenhouse farming and drip irrigation have helped maximize returns under very small land spaces. Innovative trends are coming up as a challenge to youth that one does not necessarily have to own big tracks of land to actively engage in gainful farming.

Access to finance
Modern farming requires higher financial investments, due to more advanced implements and inputs required. Access to agricultural capital still remains one of the biggest handles for aspiring young farmers. Many lenders and financial institutions are yet to come up with innovative products that target young farmers, and are still holding onto traditional lending rules that are grossly unfriendly. Requirements such as security in form of land tittle deeds or car ownership documents only serves to scare away the youth, who hardly own these kinds of assets. Some of the loan products being offered as agricultural loans are grossly unconvincing. Why design an agricultural loan product with the expected 1st repayment being within 30 days? Loans repayments in the sector should definitely be modeled to fit within production cycles.

In my view, a lot of policy changes and innovations are needed in the financial sector, for it to play a key role in stimulating youth based agriculture. As has been reported by World Bank, a 10% rise in food production reduces poverty by 7% especially in the developing world. Further reports show that growth in agriculture is more effective at reducing poverty in Africa, compared to growth in other sectors.

Surely, financial institutions need to think long and hard on the potential that exists if the agricultural sector is enabled to access financing with ease, and the prospects of the ripple effects when there is a much higher agricultural triggered economic growth.

Access to better farming technology
Majority of African agriculture is carried out by smallholder farmers, who mainly practice rain fed and subsistence farming, with very little adoption of new farming technologies. This has been a major cause of under-performance of the agricultural sector. African governments have also not given the agricultural sector the support that it deserves, with many hardly allocating the 10% of the National Budget that is recommended under Maputo Declaration of 2003, as a prerequisite to spur agricultural based economic growth. Due to this under-funding of the sector, essential services such as rural extension have highly been affected. In Kenya for instance, Egerton University’s Tegemeo Institute reports that there is a huge shortfall of public extension officers with a national tally of only 5,470 staff members. This means a very poor ratio of officers to farmers that stand at 1:1,500. This situation has hindered most farmers from keeping pace with changing technological advances.

However, the young generation who are better educated than their farming parents have more ways of accessing technologies that can be used to improve production, and do not have to wait until they are reached by the extension officers. In agriculture, it is my view that there is already a huge pool of technologies and innovations that are yet to be put into practice in the farms.

Youths who are tech savvy can have the chance to get these technologies and test them in the farms. There are also many innovations coming up every day that youth can easily replicate to increase agricultural production. Youth are spending a lot of time online lately and if they dedicated a fraction of that time in searching for agricultural related information, they will for sure find it in plenty.

Access to markets
The rural African farmer is most often disadvantaged when it comes to marketing of farm produce. Systems are very weak to enable farmers add value to their produce or even get access to the markets, and are therefore forced to sell raw products to middle men and processors, often at a very low price.

Exploitation of farmers has been one of the major scares for new entrants (mainly the youth) from getting into farming. While a lot still need to be done in this, there are new trends on this area that should encourage youth to get into farming. Lately, there are possibilities to market products directly to consumers using online platforms. There are also emerging trends where young innovators are coming up with value addition approaches that help them market products at a higher price. Government should also find ways of creating enabling environment and favorable laws that encourage small-scale value addition and marketing.

There are also success stories of farmers creating strong cooperatives that help them add value to their products and gain stronger recognition that help them negotiate better prices for their products. The young generation should take advantage of their advanced education to ensure that besides joining these cooperatives, they are also run professionally as business entities whose interest is solely to maximize returns to farmers.

Other more complex factors
The areas raised above would surely help a great deal in ensuring that the youth in Africa become part of the solution to the global food challenge, while at the same time being gainfully employed under the massive agricultural sector. Increased food production would mean quicker economic growth for the continent, and ability to divert the billions of Dollars used to import food into other pressing internal financing needs.

While issues mentioned above would be argued as some of the quick fixes in addressing the twin challenges, there are other complex factors that need to be addressed as well, which definitely play a key role in stifling the wider growth prospects for Africa. These include African internal governance weaknesses, effects of climate change and unfair global trade policies. Hopefully, these will be addressed in a future publication.