With the agricultural sector seen as an epicentre of growth and development across the African continent, many (myself included) have argued that the sector needs to attract young talent in order to maximise its potential. Some agricultural leaders and policy makers have placed the blame on young people, arguing that the youth show little interest in the sector - they somehow want sophisticated office jobs. On face value, this is believable.
In the past few months, however, I have met a number of young people who are motivated and interested to join the agricultural sector. All of them were asking the same questions: Where do we start? Is there a possibility to access productive land and some mentorship? What are the possible funding and financing methods? Some have already started small operations and are now struggling to join the formal market.
These questions arise because we have not clearly articulated the path for young people who are interested in joining the sector. For agricultural professionals, though, the road is clear – you obtain a university degree, then join an agricultural institution or government agency. In fact, this seems to be the path that most leaders have been emphasising, and understandably so, as it is an essential part of the success of this sector. That said, there is still no clarity about support measures for those who are interested in joining the production side of the sector, such as being a farmer.
To be a farmer, one needs good productive land. There are young people willing to leave their 'sophisticated' careers in other industries and enter agriculture but are encountering funding challenges, which in turn means no access to land. So no matter how ambitious they can be, without capital, there is a limited way forward.
Perhaps it is the time that we review the governing laws of the communal land and devise new strategies that will accommodate agricultural youth activities.
Accompanying these challenges is an abundance of underutilised land in the rural areas from Eastern Cape, Limpopo to Kwa-Zulu Natal provinces. Perhaps it is the time that we review the governing laws of the communal land and devise new strategies that will accommodate agricultural youth activities. One solution would be to give these youth title deeds or a tradeable long term lease, so they can acquire capital, then link them to organised agriculture for mentorship and access to global export markets.
Most of the unemployed young people are from rural communities in these provinces. By giving them an opportunity to work the land, it will not only uplift them but will benefit our entire society by decreasing unemployment and increasing skilled labour. More importantly for the continent at large, about 45% of sub-Saharan Africa's population is below the age of 15 while farmers in this region are ageing, with the average age of a farmer in South Africa being 62.
A recent study by Michigan State University and Stellenbosch University agricultural economists have championed the potential role that youth could play in the sector. Interestingly, with the current youth unemployment level in South Africa and the region at large, the study notes that over the next two decades 330 million young Africans will be entering the job market looking for work. In order to prepare for this influx, we will need to improve the agricultural sector and maximise its potential, and we will need to do it very soon.
Land policy and public investments could to some extent improve the situation and raise profitability and attractiveness of the agricultural sector. This is a situation which could be desirable towards the youth, governments, and our society at large.
I must emphasise that it is not enough to promote the sector and its major potential to absorb the youth and grow the African economies, without creating a clear path for youth participation. Governments across the continent could outline the ways in which they plan to involve young people. They should not just advise them to get agricultural degrees, there should also be a drive to assist a pull of new farmers which will productively utilise the unused land across the continent. The potential of African agriculture is as bright as the strategies which are crafted to unlock that potential.