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Young Africa Works: Making farming sexy

A beautiful, noisy thunder shower greeted delegates arriving in Kigali, Rwanda, for the Mastercard Foundation’s second annual Young Africa Works Summit in late February 2017, shattering expectations of cracked skin and dry taps after a terrible year of drought in many parts of Africa .

The trip from the airport to the Marriott Hotel, where the summit took place, gave an indication that many more expectations would be shattered.

One hoped the 300 delegates at the summit would still take serious note of the various warnings about being water wise but, as for other old expectations, they might as well have been flushed away. New stereotypes are being  minted by the day in Africa, with its burgeoning population of young people and blossoming cultures of innovation and entrepreneurship.

Looking for a ‘killer app’ to link agriculture and youth unemployment

Opening the conference Rwanda’s Minister of Youth and ICT Jean Philbert Nsengimana, pictured, put his faith in the agricultural sector to solve the mounting problem of youth unemployment … even as he used hi-tech lingo to describe the problems facing Africa.

He said finding a solution that combined Africa’s demographic dividend with its agricultural promise would be like creating a “killer app”.

This is a man with an MBA in IT management and a master’s degree in software engineering, yet he said he had no doubt that the agricultural sector was best placed to solve the problem of how to put a burgeoning young population to work in a sustainable and meaningful way.

He said when he thought of agriculture on the continent he was struck by the appalling paradox of problems and opportunities existing side by side.

The summit will hear much about this paradox, of Africa’s bountiful potential, an abundance of fertile land, long growing seasons and large young labour force, among other things, in such conflict with the reality of starvation and poverty.

“This is the time for change,” the minister said. “This is the time we say no to this unending paradox of problems living side by side with solutions.”

Kenyan women on top

Africans rising: from left, Brian Bosire, Laetitia Mukungu, Rita Kimani, Jean Bosco Nzeyimana and Pilirani Khoza

(As one has become accustomed …) Kenya stood proud at the Mastercard Foundation’s Young Africa Works Summit with two of the East African country’s leading young entrepreneurs, both of them women, hosting the youth keynote address.

Rita Kimani, founder of FarmDrive, and Laetitia Mukungu, founder of the Africa Rabbit Centre, co-hosted a panel of three young people doing great things in the agricultural sector on the continent.

Making farming sexy and feeding a continent

The conference really did live up to its promise of putting young people centre stage.

The potential of a “Green Revolution”, which has been talked about since the Seventies, shows fresh promise with a growing and increasingly innovative new generation of young farmers, most of whom consider themselves professionals despite the sector’s reputation as a depository for people who have not made it elsewhere.

That there is shame associated with any part of food production in Africa is a scandal in itself.

It is widely agreed that the real shame is that Africa, with most of the world’s arable land and a large and growing workforce, spends $35 billion a year importing food. That is the real crisis that the next generation of agriculturalists is under pressure to solve. It is good news for the young people themselves, they say, that they are also chiseling away at the sector’s bad reputation.

Farming already has the weight of critical importance on its side. It is widely seen as the sector with the most potential to defuse Africa’s ticking timebomb of a booming population and a growing unemployment crisis.

Africa has a young workforce in an ageing world, with an estimated 226 million people between the ages of 15 and 24. More than 70 percent of those youngsters are believed to live on less than $2 a day, most of them relying on vulnerable or unpaid employment for their survival.

According to information from the Mastercard Foundation, the agriculture sector is set to create an additional 8 million stable jobs by 2020, a figure that could be significantly increased through increased investment in education, infrastructure, technology and various other support services.

An important shot in the arm is being delivered as scores of young entrepreneurs begin to make headlines as they build healthy and exciting businesses by applying cutting edge innovations and new technologies in a sector known until recently as the most old-fashioned and anti-tech, even some might say ancient.

And here is a little about just two of them:

Jean Bosco Nzeyimana and his organically fuelled revolution

Recycling municipal waste might not seem glamorous at all but it was thanks to turning waste into a clean burning fuel that Rwandan Jean Bosco Nzeyimana, pictured, was flown to America to appear on stage alongside Barack Obama and Mark Zuckerberg, among other things.

Nzeyimana was one of the young African farmers firing things up at the Mastercard Foundation’s Young Africa Works summit in Kigali in late February 2017, with stories about using innovative ways to earn a good living off the land.

As a member of a panel during the keynote session the 23-year-old talked about more idyllic times when his parents’ small piece of land would provide such a bountiful harvest that they would recruit all the young people of the valley to help at harvest time.

One thing he remembers not liking about this time, however, was that the farming tools were so important to his parents that they were kept in their bedroom. In the eyes of the young Jean Bosco, the last of seven children, they got to “sleep” in Mum and Dad’s bedroom, something he would have liked.

That was nothing, though, compared with the pain and difficulty caused to Nzeyimana and his family as the harvests got smaller each year as climate change and poor farming methods took their toll.

He said he doesn’t blame his parents but he didn’t like the way the older generation was practising farming. He said it was clear they were not able to adjust to the changing climate.

While this was happening he was doing well at school but coming to realise that his parents would not be able to fund any further education.

As he was watching his family’s lifestyle becoming harder to maintain, Nzeyimana said, he “became very competitive at school” in the hope of winning government support to attend university. This he did and he now holds a bachelors degree in business administration from the University of Rwanda.

Then, he said, he was determined to show his parents that what he had learned at university could be put to good use.

“I wanted to see if what I had learned at school could make the family more stable,” he said.

This was the motivation behind starting Habona, a company that processes waste into affordable and environmentally friendly fuels such as biogas and biomass briquettes.

The briquette, made of compressed organic matter, is a clean burning fuel with high energy efficiency. The company processes waste for a large community, including a refugee camp, and produces a sustainable replacement to wood charcoal, which is easy to light and can burn longer than charcoal.

Nzeyimana has been named Rwanda’s top young entrepreneur and an India-Africa Young Visionary as well as being awarded the African Innovation Prize. He was selected as the 2015 Mandela Washington Fellow through the flagship programme of the U.S. president for Young African Leaders.

As a fellow, this young Rwandan, the first in his family to study at university, did intensive training in leadership, business and entrepreneurship at Northwestern University in Chicago as well as environmental and green energy studies at the University of Wisconsin. And now, he told African News Agency, he has dreams of doing an MBA at one of the “big schools”, by which he said he meant Stanford, Oxford, Harvard, Yale and the like.

The glamour of awards and international training aside, Nzeyimana’s business has created 30 permanent jobs and provides another 40 temporary jobs every month.

It provides cost-effective, renewable energy sources to households, businesses, schools, farmers and government, extremely beneficial in the face of Rwanda’s severe energy crisis. The company also produces bio-fertilizer for farmers and consultancy and maintenance services regarding integrated waste management and energy solutions.

“It is two and a half years since we started and we are very proud of the impact we have made,” said the soft-spoken young man, who is also fueling the revolution that some of his peers describe as “making farming sexy”.

Laetitia Mukungu, making healthy, affordable food fashionable

While feeding a nation might not be dripping in the cool factor, being ahead of the curve of food trends in hip restaurants definitely has a big helping of it. Laetitia Mukungu, founder of Kenya’s Africa Rabbit Centre, now has this claim to fame.

Mukungu – who was co-host of the youth keynote address at the Mastercard Foundation’s Young Africa Works summit, which wrapped up on Friday – reported the good news at the summit that Nairobi’s famous Carnivore Restaurant, a popular haunt of tourists and locals, would soon be stocking her products.

Mukungu gave a very convincing presentation about the Africa Rabbit Centre at the Mastercard Foundation’s first Young Africa Works summit, in Cape Town in October 2015, but the world didn’t seem quite ready for her then. A year and a bit on, the business she started as a way to help struggling rural youth and women is growing in leaps and bounds.

However, the young Kenyan told the second Young Africa Works summit in Kigali last week that farming’s bad reputation remained a concern. She said one of the biggest obstacles to young people becoming farmers was that the education system undervalued agriculture as a potential career.

Mukungu, who is currently studying Agricultural Engineering at Earth University in Costa Rica, remembered that schoolteachers would tell poor performers that they would end up as farmers when they grew up if they didn’t improve.

She has been recognised by the Anzisha Prize and Spark Kenya Changemaker and is named by many other young farmers as the reason they are looking at starting to breed rabbits.

Rabbit meat is very high in protein and low in fat, but it also ticks another important box: there is little waste. The meat is eaten, the pelts are used for clothing, the faeces are used as fertilizer and even the urine is used as pest control.

Minimising waste is another key consideration for this next generation of farmers, who are experiencing the effects of climate change in a way the generation that went before could hardly imagine.

And an almost coup …

One of Ghana’s most accomplished statesmen almost pulled off a coup on “Young Africa” at the Mastercard Foundation’s Young Africa Works summit in Kigali … but not quite.

There were no obvious signs that it was part of a carefully planned exercise but Sulley Gariba, right, senior policy adviser to the government of Ghana and the country’s High Commissioner to Canada, certainly had the element of surprise on his side (as with any well-planned coup).

Before he sprung a question (from the audience) about succession planning on one of the bright young things on stage anyone over 35 had borne the brunt of any generational finger-pointing. Until that point friendly tension between old and young at the summit had left the older folks looking a little ragged.

Later that same session, which was about how policies can better support young people to become engines of agricultural transformation, the moderator, Dr William Baah-Boateng, perhaps emboldened by Gariba’s surprise move, had pointed out to the same young gun, Ugandan Francis Arinaitwe, that he had been like him 25 years ago.

Sensing a small victory perhaps, he added: “In 25 years’ time will you be like me. What are you going to do?”

Baah-Boateng, currently a senior research fellow at the African Centre for Economic Transformation, is on a sabbatical from his position as senior lecturer in economics at the University of Ghana. As a university lecturer he had perhaps felt more keenly than others the slight turning of tables at the summit, which seems to very successfully have encouraged young people take a bigger role in setting the agenda.

To be sure, the young man in question, panelist Francis Arinaitwe, left, the parish youth chairperson for Mayuge District in Uganda, had stuck his neck out, even perhaps put his head on the block for his generation.

He had started by calling on policymakers to “leave your office … come and conduct focus groups with us on the ground”.

“It is your initiative and your responsibility to consult us on the ground!” he said firmly, adding that not all young people were educated enough to feel able to approach the offices of leadership.

It was Baah-Boateng who had come in strongly in support of the young farmer here, saying that leaders must be careful to not become armchair policymakers. In fact, except for the small challenge about succession planning, which he handled with aplomb, Arinaitwe had received nothing but encouragement from Baah-Boateng and Gariba.

The young farmer who is also spokesman for many had very specific demands and requests for policymakers. His eloquence and clarity left none in doubt that he was ready for the raised profile he was seeking for his generation.

Policies around financial access should be amended to make them simpler, affordable and friendly were his description of what was required.

He also called for action around policies about land ownership, particularly regarding equality for men and women.

There were a number of other specific suggestions but there was also a general request that seemed to speak to the more general handing over of the baton.

“It is high time you stopped thinking about us as beneficiaries,” he said.
“It is time to make us participants.

“I know you were once a youth, but that was then,” Arinaitwe said, adding that it was time that his generation gave input into the policies that affected them.


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