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Redefining Agriculture in Africa

From a very young age, African millennials are taught to associate agriculture with punishment. For example, the boarding school I attended in Nigeria often sent students on “working suspension” for bad behavior. If you were lucky, you’d be assigned to pick up litter or maybe even clean the gutters. If you were unlucky, however, you’d be assigned to the farm where you’d be forced to uproot weeds, plant orange seeds in the ground and bath the pigs on the farm. A full day of “punishment” such as this was sure to lead to aching muscles and headaches that would reinforce the message—don’t misbehave lest you be subjected to the torture that is agriculture. I remember when all the boys in my class were put on working suspension, except for me. I recall feeling superior and rewarded for my good behavior. This treatment has created a fundamental problem: an entire generation desperately needed to feed Africa’s growing population do not associate farming with business opportunity and economic growth but rather associate it with punishment and pain.
Despite this negative perception, agriculture employs 65-70% of Africa’s people and accounts for about a third of the continent’s GDP . The perception issue is two-fold. On the one hand, many African youth watched their parents break their backs on farms without much to show for it and are determined to avoid agriculture at all cost. On the other hand is the perception of agriculture as a hoes and cutlass affair which inevitably leads to blisters and aching muscles. This perception partly stems from older generations watching their parents get stuck as small-scale farmers due to lack of funds, political instability and lack of education to practice mechanized agriculture.
Interestingly, however, Africa’s statistics remain compelling – 50% of the continent’s population is under 25 , Africa has 60% of the arable land left in the world and women make up more than half of Africa’s farmers and produce up to 90% of the continent’s food . We also know that Africa has an unemployment problem that, if not curbed sooner rather than later, could lead to youth unrest. When we cross-reference these data points, it becomes clear that agriculture presents a great opportunity to create inclusive growth and sustainable jobs that Africans can use to support themselves and their families.
Changing the perception of agriculture in Africa will be a multi-faceted challenge that will require participation at all levels. At the school level, we need education practitioners to adopt a different mindset towards agriculture. I vividly remember the look of disgust on my secondary school academic advisor’s face when I told him I wanted to take Agricultural Science as my elective. Ironically, he suggested I consider Technical drawing, “so that I could at least feed my family as an architect”. There were only four students in my Agricultural Science class and to a large degree it was because it was not “cool” to be in Agriculture. This negative narrative at the school level will need to change as educators have a direct influence on what young adults choose to study. Realizing this need, schools need to educate their teachers on the importance of the topic and have those instructors steer students towards agriculture or, at the very least, not steer them away.
Another way to rebrand agriculture would be to shift away from conventional thinking about agriculture as the science of cultivating land and raising crops to a more inclusive school of thinking that recognizes “Agribusiness” and agriculture technology. This change has been suggested by many currently in the field and I believe it forces young people to think of agriculture as more than farming , but as an entrepreneurial and creative ecosystem—one where they can find sustainable employment and also build their skills and careers.
Finally, African entrepreneurs who recognize the need to change the view of agriculture should consider making bold moves on the continent such as starting an agribusiness venture and employing some top African talent. The success of such ventures would incentivize others to give the space a second look. Some entrepreneurs like Aliko Dangote are currently taking steps and investing in businesses such as commercial rice farming and integrated rice mills. Others should take note and follow suit.
Agriculture promises to be a large driver of economic growth in Africa in the coming decades. To begin our venture in rethinking agriculture in Africa, we will need to first and foremost, shift our perspective of agriculture from punishment to opportunity— the rest of the world (i.e. China) seems to have realized this; it is time for us to come to that realization and act on it.
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Written by PH

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