The African Conference on Agricultural Technologies (ACAT) event started in Nairobi, Kenya, on October 30, opening with a focus on, among other topics, the future farmers and how the young population in Africa can contribute to agricultural resilience.
Hosted by Kenya’s Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock Development and the Africa Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF), the five-day event, which has been sponsored by science and agriculture-related organizations, including Alliance for Science, is themed Agricultural Resilience through Innovation and is intended to focus on the centrality of science, technology, and innovation (STI) in fostering agricultural transformation in Africa.
Role of youth
The conference brings together a dynamic community of farmers and other practitioners, such as policymakers, researchers, experts, and innovators, to exchange ideas, share best practices, and explore innovative solutions to enhance agricultural productivity in Africa. The Youth Dialogue, themed Fostering the Next Generation, explored the intersection between industry, innovation, and infrastructure (SDG 9 and food security encompassed within SDG 2 of Zero Hunger) and the role of the youth in both.
According to Kenneth Obayuwana, the National Director of the International Association of Agricultural Students (UK Chapter), “the youth are the bridge between technological innovation and agriculture. Young people are creative and are attracted to new things and new, easier ways of doing things. It’s best to pull this crowd into the agricultural field, tap into their creativity to improve or develop innovative ways to produce more agricultural products and curb climate change.”
Africa has the youngest population in the world, with 70 percent of people in sub-Saharan Africa being under 30. By 2030, young Africans are expected to constitute 42 percent of global youth. Since they are often considered the most experimental and more friendly towards new technologies, young people can contribute to the targets set out in Sustainable Development Goal 2 and enhance productivity, incomes, and resilience in harsh environments by developing innovative ways to produce crops and keep livestock.
Fair land tenures that benefit the youth
“The real problem,” said Pius Mugendi, a young farmer, “is that the youth have no access to the basic factors of production, majorly land and capital. Before we get to infrastructure, which I think is somewhat of a secondary need, we must address the issue of land and resources to acquire crops or livestock. We must solve these first before discussing technology or infrastructure.”
Margaret Rachael said the Kenyan government needs to ensure fair land tenures that benefit even the youth. “Where I come from, agricultural land is scarce because of the population. And yet, incentives from the government meant to encourage farming, such as allocation of riparian land, often benefits the older generation more than it does the youth.”
However, just like there are as many ideas as there are people, the solution to achieving agricultural resilience need not be a singular approach. It can be multi-disciplinary.
Approach innovation in agriculture differently
According to Michael Onyango, the deputy Executive Director of the Alliance for Science, young people must take up initiatives and not just wait for things to be handed to them all the time. “We have enough policies, some of them really good ones; we don’t need to come up with more. We need to see the youth actively taking it upon themselves to occupy the spaces they want to be in.”
He said that young people need to learn to approach innovation in agriculture differently. “Agriculture does not necessarily mean going to the farm. There is the agribusiness part of it. Think of something new around that. It can be as simple as buying milk from the farmers and turning it to cheese or becoming the bridge between the farmers and accessible markets.”
The conference comes just a few days after a report by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) on food security that revealed that about 90 million new people globally are facing hunger in just one year, a number majorly influenced by the Covid-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine which has led to reduced accessibility to cereals and thus rattling global food and energy markets further.
According to the FAO report, in 2022, 14.8 million Kenyans suffered from severe food insecurity resulting from erratic weather patterns and aftershocks of the pandemic. To address this crisis, “there is a need to put in place innovative measures to help farmers adapt to natural disasters and a changing climate,” said Daniel Magondu, a pioneer Bt cotton farmer. “For instance, I advocate the incorporation of biotech crops into farming because I have seen the benefits of it, and to that, I can attest.”
Provide a conducive environment
Farmers experience significant adverse climatic changes in Africa, notably increased drought and inconsistent rainfall. Agricultural innovation systems (AIS) in agriculture can bring existing or new products, processes, and forms of organization into social and economic use.
David Chege, an environmental lawyer, proposed that instead of focusing heavily on funding the youth practising agriculture to encourage them to be innovative, the focus should be expanded on providing a conducive environment for them to thrive. “Let us think about value addition in agriculture as an alternative. Invest in legal changes and make our laws friendly to young farmers and agri-preneurs. That way, we will have more young people prioritizing agriculture,” he said.
Eliminating or lowering taxes on agricultural and farm equipment, such as fertilizers or subsidizing costs, are also some ways in which governments can encourage the younger generations to venture into agriculture.
However, crop and livestock yields are also heavily impacted by climate change. Hence, addressing climate change to secure a sustainable future for agriculture and food systems is important. Innovations need not only to make agriculture more competitive but also sustainable. Innovative cropping techniques such as gene-editing and isolation help farmers adapt to natural disasters and a changing climate, thus strengthening food security in the face of climate change.
Prioritize environmental conservation
African governments were also challenged to ensure the balance between encouraging exploitation of land for agricultural purposes and environmental conservation, such as evidence-based policy practices in Europe, which involve using systematic reviews to assemble, critically evaluate, and synthesize the evidence in environmental conservation. For instance, in most countries within the European Union, imported or exported agricultural products are traced down to sources. How they were produced such that produce from degraded land, for instance, is banned and not allowed to be distributed. This ensures that farmers prioritize environmental conservation.
At the end of the plenary session, Alliance for Science Executive Director Dr Sheila Ochugboju and OFAB launched a Youth Congress to recognize the young innovators and thinkers contributing to different fields, including agriculture in Africa. “We are launching this space- a Youth Congress- to celebrate young innovators in this continent, boost their morale, and give young farmers a platform. To the young people here, this is your platform, embrace it, own it,” Dr Sheila said.
Gloriah Amondi is a Kenya-based multilingual human rights lawyer, Mandarin teacher, and writer contributing to The Nation’s weekend editions. Her works have been published in journals such as Kalahari Review, Ibua Literary Journal, Lolwe Literary Magazine, and Dooney’s Café.