The projected increase in population offers a mixed bag of fortunes for agriculture and food systems globally. In sub-Saharan Africa, where agricultural production is dominated by small-scale farmers, an increasing population means more consumers of agricultural products, and therefore more market opportunities for smallholder farmers. But new generation consumers are increasingly conscious of their product choices, which are driven by the quality, nutrition and health aspects of food. As quality standards for agricultural products continue to become more stringent and traceability gains a central role in verifying sustainability within supply chains, farmers need to adapt to respond to these higher standards or risk being cut out of profitable markets.
But it is not only consumption patterns or behaviour that is changing, the entire agricultural food system is undergoing a transformation. The ageing farmer population, coupled with vulnerabilities presented by external factors, such as climate and market fluctuations, pose complex realities that demand new ways of farming. It is clear that the farming practices of yesterday do not serve the needs of today, neither will the agricultural products of today serve the consumers of tomorrow. Are small-scale farmers in sub-Saharan Africa able to rise up to these requirements? Yes, but a generational change is needed in farming in sub-Saharan Africa.
Younger farmers have the ability to transform knowledge and skills into productive resources and adapt better to changing climate and market conditions. They are open to technological advances and to adopting new techniques in production, processing and marketing that can minimise losses and wastage. They understand the value in using precision agriculture to access real-time farming data so that they can anticipate threats to crop productivity, such as drought or disease, and react accordingly to minimise the risks. They are also able to use ICT technology to spur innovation and offer services to other farmers. In other words, young farmers and entrepreneurs are a critical driving force for new agriculture.
Government, development actors and the private sector therefore need to work together to accelerate the entry of young people into agriculture. The use of information services to enhance farmers’ efficiency, resilience and productivity, and value-adding activities, such as the processing and packaging of agricultural produce, make the sector more attractive to young and ambitious entrepreneurs. However, productive resources such as land, finances and technology must be made accessible and affordable to enable young people to build successful and sustainable agribusinesses.
At the same time, farmers’ and other agricultural stakeholders’ interaction with the market needs to be faster, better focused and constant to allow a two-way flow of information. For instance, technologies such as mobile phones are increasingly being used to create virtual market places, to relay price information and to consolidate supply chains. Interaction with markets helps farmers to reinforce market needs, tailor their production to meet the required standards, and respond to the quality, health and nutrition needs of modern consumers.