For youth in Kenya and other African countries, farming is no longer about dirt, poverty or wasted investments with limited or no returns.
Many young people who have graduated from universities are now quitting the rat race for elusive structured white-collar jobs for the gruelling yet rewarding agribusiness ventures.
While some youths want to be a part of those improving the country’s food security; others are driven by the desire to earn more. While the average age of the African farmer remains at 60, more youth are turning to farming, thanks to the use of technology.
The International Institute for Communication and Development (IICD) in its November report, ‘‘Youth, ICTs and Agriculture,’’ which explores how digital tools and skills influence motivation of young farmers, notes the changing perspective of farming from a back-breaking, labour-consuming task to a much more profitable and honest source of income.
“ICT not only improves the status of the young people using it, but also of the farming sector in general. Those who used to see farming as a last resort source of income now see it as a rewarding business,” the report says.
Last year’s World Bank and Africa Development Bank (AfDB) joint report ‘‘e-Transform Africa,’’ highlighted the potential of ICT in transforming the agricultural sector in various ways including offering financial services for the farmers, providing information on best practises, and providing better risk management.
The joint report recognises that ICT contributes seven per cent of Africa’s GDP, attributing the larger share to mobile phones which have turned into financial credit platforms, newspapers, games gadgets and source of entertainment.
The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) estimates that the mobile penetration in Africa this year stands at 63 per cent with 2.7 billion people using the Internet.
About 93 million people across the continent subscribe to mobile broadband, indicating the growing preference among the population to access Internet on mobile devices.
The agriculture sector contributes 32 per cent of the region’s GDP and employs 65 per cent of the labour force. At the moment, only 183 million hectares in the region are being cultivated while another 452 million hectares suitable for farming are lying fallow.
Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (Agra) in their ‘‘Africa Agriculture Status’’ report 2013 identifies the role of innovation and technology development in building productive capacities within the agriculture sector, noting the substantial increase over the past decade.
In an interview with the Business Daily, Michael Hailu, the director of the Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural co-operation (CTA) said that ICTs and particularly mobile phones have the potential to transform smallholder farming in African economies especially among women who produce 80 per cent of the food.
“African countries spend up to $50 billion a year on food imports. With abundant land, water and cheap labour, there is no good reason why Africa should import so much food,” he said.
While acknowledging the tremendous growth the sector has seen in recent years with increased investments from governments and the private sector, he said it’s time to improve food production.
“To achieve its full potential, smallholder agriculture must be transformed from a subsistence activity to a profitable sustainable business and ICTs play a vital role in the transformation by providing timely advice and information. They help farmers increase their production, make markets more efficient and increase incomes along the value chain,” he said.
Young software developers are finding ways of solving problems like access to information, marketing of produce and seeking finance by using technology and communication tools ranging from social media platforms, community radios, videos, and Internet-based as well as offline mobile applications.
A research paper on the drivers of youth unemployment in Kenya released by the International Labour Organisation in October, says that the country is listed as among those with the lowest youth unemployment rates globally.
While young men and women account for 37 per cent of the working-age population only 20 per cent are employed.
The UN World Population Prospects report, which predicts that by 2050 there would be 17.5 million youth aged between 15 and 24 years in the country, underscores the need to create employment for the close to one million people that enter the Kenyan job market annually.
According to Joseph Macharia, a lecturer at the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, one of the main reasons that youth have not taken up farming is because they lack evidence of successful young farmers.
“We have musicians who portray a wealthy lifestyle and whom many youth want to emulate if we create more platforms in which young agriculture champions can showcase what they are earning more youth will venture into agribusiness,” he said.
In addition to the creation of role models, their success stories as well as information on other best practices in agriculture should be on online platforms like Facebook and other social media.
“Rather than target those in rural areas, focus on youth in urban areas who are educated and unemployed showing them a sustainable way of making a living through agriculture and they will in turn employ or motivate the youth in rural areas who are keen on moving to the cities,” Mr Macharia said.
Despite the spurring progress in integrating ICTs into agricultural practices, Judith Payne, an e-business advisor working with USAID notes there has been little measurable evidence to show the impact that the technologies have had on smallholder farmers in Africa.
“While we have very many people coming up with applications to help farmers, the areas that they cover is mainly small. Many donors are now looking to fund applications that can be up-scaled, not just by adding more people in that area but taken to another place facing similar challenges with little or no modification,” said Ms Payne.
Her words were echoed by Stephen Muchiri, the chief executive of East African Farmers Federation, who noted that many of the technologies and the information transmitted through them still remained out of reach for many of the farmers.
“While there is a great need to transform smallholder farming in Africa , many of the ICTs that are being advanced are donor-sponsored and target small groups of people which makes it difficult for the technology to spread and most of them tend to die off once the sponsorship is withdrawn,” he said.
He said that there had been a lot of similarities especially in the mobile apps platform where many start-ups and entrepreneurs promoted similar services.
While acknowledging that this left room for business competition and efficiency in the technologies, many of the smallholder farmers were often spoilt for choice.
“We have a lot of information for farmers on weather and planting, agronomy and horticulture but post harvest losses are still a great challenge for many farmers. For instance, if you look at Kenya, between 20 and 50 per cent of the crop is lost at post harvest and it would be good to have solutions that address these areas,” the farmer said.
Speaking with the Business Daily, the knowledge and information management officer with Food and Agriculture Organisation (Fao), Michael Riggs, said that with the global population expected to double by 2050, there is need to identify ways of boosting food production and security across all households in Africa where the bulk of the population will reside.
“ICT provide youth with new opportunities in agribusiness, skills specialisation and dissemination of vital information as technology continues to advance every day,” he said.
Mr Riggs noted that while there was a global excitement phenomenon from the technology explosion and the potential to positively impact livelihoods, reversing the unpopular trend would require more than the sector’s expansion and integration into agriculture.
He added that creation of agricultural interest among the youth requires efforts of both the government and the private sector to create an enabling environment that addresses the economic and socio-cultural aspects.
“There is need to ensure that the positive effect of ICT in agriculture is sustained. Global networks need to ensure that the lessons learned and challenges are being shared and addressed collectively. Governments also need to create enabling environments through policies promoting the use of ICT along with ensuring that they become disseminators developing digital and not just aggregators of information.”
The Fao officer, however, cautioned against the perceptions that ICT would provide a one-in-all solution to the continent’s problems of youth unemployment, food insecurity and poverty in the continent.
“While agriculture is not a dying art, people need not think that ICT will keep youth on the farms, there is need to look at the whole agricultural value chain and see what needs to be done. Digital technology has enabled us reach more people than before but they are enabling tools and not the final solution, they are not a magic bullet.”
Ms Aparajita Goyal, an economist with the World Bank in Washington DC holds a similar view that financial stability and scalability should be key parameters for use of technology in agriculture.
“In order to have a bigger impact we need to use ICTs with a win – win model for both the farmers and other stakeholders. Unless there is a financially sustainable model behind the innovation it is not going to go far,” she said.
According to the World Bank, research has proven that price information transmitted via technology to farmers has had a positive effect on market efficiency and on the farmers’ welfare in sub-Saharan Africa though there is still limited information on the impact of other innovation systems.
Ms Goyal noted that while reaching a small group of people is needed in the initial stages when you are piloting a project, young innovators need to work on frameworks in which the projects can be upscale through public private partnerships in order to have greater impact.
“ICT is not a panacea for development it is a tool and we cannot ignore complementary investments in roads, electricity and infrastructure if we need to tackle the bigger issues of food security in Africa.
Governments have a bigger role to play by creating that enabling environment for the private sector to come in,” she said.