Digitalisation is a timely magnet for youth involvement in agriculture

Opinion: Digitalisation

by John Agboola

The global population is projected to reach 9 billion people by 2050, with nearly 2 billion of those people living in Africa. Global population growth, particularly in Africa, looks set to boom before there is a food system in place that can support all people at all times.

The idea of Africa feeding itself is not farfetched though: Africa has about 65% of the world's uncultivated, farmable land; Africa is endowed with a wide diversity of agro-ecological zones, such as heavy rain-forest vegetation and dry-arid vegetation; agriculture provides around 60% of all jobs on the continent; and Africa uses only 2% of its renewable water resources, compared to 5% globally. The issue, however, is that smallholder farmers aged 60 years and above account for over 80% of agricultural food production in Africa. This is despite the fact that half of Africa’s population is aged under 25 years.

By 2025, an estimated 330 million young Africans will enter the labour market. Hence, there is a need to match youth unemployment with the enormous potential of African agriculture. Young people picture the drudgery of farming and perceive farming as a low income employment sector. In recent years though, digitalisation and agricultural technologies have enhanced the way that food is produced. ICT-enabled agriculture is gradually changing the mind-sets of young people and creating young entrepreneurs who are willing to take risks and invest in agriculture.

Digital solutions and platforms, such as smart-mobile applications, remote sensing technology, big data, digital soil maps, social media, blockchain, drones, precision technology and cloud-based computing, have the tendency to not only increase food production and market efficiency, but also accelerate youth involvement in agriculture. Over the past few years, private sector companies and donor agencies have become increasingly aware of the role that digital agriculture can play in driving agricultural growth for smallholder farmers and youth in agriculture. Mobile applications and low-tech solutions have been developed by different stakeholders, including young entrepreneurs, to tackle issues related to production, input supply, finance, processing, logistics, and marketing. The key question is whether digital agriculture is enough to drive growth and ensure sustained youth involvement in agriculture.

There is a popular assertion that on average, young people are smart, energetic, innovative and capable of integrating technology into their activities. These attributes are complementary of what digital agriculture can offer, enabling young people to transform agriculture in Africa from the palm of their hand. Across agricultural value chains, digital agriculture has proven to be a timely way to attract youth into agriculture, but the rubber still needs to meet the road. There is a need to link youths involved in digital agriculture with substantial financial inclusion, investment support from both the private and public sectors, and tailored agricultural training.

Dr Akinwumi Adesina, President of the African Development Bank (AfDB), emphasises the potential of digital agriculture by saying that “modern agricultural technology, such as digitally enabled agriculture, precision farming, hydroponics, robotics, and artificial intelligence, is expanding globally. The future farmer will most likely not be in overalls, but will be a farming-enabler. A farmer that is not physically engaged in agriculture. These farmers will take agriculture to the next level, a level shaped by innovations.”

At the CGIAR Big Data Convention in October, I interviewed Dr Debisi Araba, Centre for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) Regional Director for Africa, about his perspective on youth in agriculture. He said that a “prosperity approach needs to overtake a poverty reduction approach, to encourage young people into making a career in agribusiness. The future of Africa is not seeing more youth on the farm but more youth at the top of the of the value chain pyramid, where digital agriculture creates multiple entry points for young people looking to get involved in agribusiness.”