Margaret Karembu is a senior level environmental science management specialist with considerable experience in modern biotechnology products’ transfer to farmers and biotechnology applications in Africa in general. She is the Director of the Africa office of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA AfriCenter) with office in Nairobi, Kenya. She spoke with Abdallah el-Kurebe on the worrying trend of predominant ageing farming community.
There is a growing concern that while Africa’s population is shooting up at alarming rate, it is being met with semi-skilled and ageing farming community. In other words, the youths do not seem interested in farming.
This is an interesting observation. It is truly worrying that only the predominant ageing farming community are still engaged in African food production. These are also largely semi-skilled and on subsistence methods of farming. This is the trend in Africa. Young people do not view themselves as part of the solution to food production even with their increasing population.
But why, in your view, is the reason that the youths are not interested in farming?
Farming is portrayed as punitive, inferior and non-profitable. To them, the primitive methods of farming are not attractive in many senses. Today, every young graduate runs for a white-collar job instead of following the footsteps of his/her parents – cultivate land to grow food, and maybe earn some money.
What would you proffer as ways that could attract the young people into farming?
The role of technology in motivating African youth into agricultural-related enterprises, which in turn would tap on a huge underutilised labour force, cannot be over-looked. Africa has been cited as the most youthful continent. According to the Africa Union (2011), about 65% of the total population is below the age of 35 years and over 35% are between the ages of 15 and 35 years. If you ask, attracting the youth into the agricultural sector will first and foremost require change of mindsets at both formal and informal education sectors and making farming more pleasurable. Access to efficient bioscience tools such as tissue culture (TC) techniques could greatly enhance productivity. Programs to encourage and facilitate young people to establish low-cost TC businesses can particularly be useful in availing large quantities of clean planting materials for African starchy staples such as bananas, sweet potato and cassava. By organizing youths for higher-tech agriculture using social media, greater receptivity could be expected particularly in risk aversion, mental activity and scientific understanding, since majority of them highly trust social media.
Capturing the young people into farming has been a difficult task. Do you see retaining them, if finally caught into the web, as that easy either?
At the onset, the youth have not been integrated in the agricultural sector. The majority throng to cities in their millions ending up in slums and on the streets doing menial jobs and hawking all manner of counterfeit imported goods – a sure way of killing their own innovations and the economy. The returns are low and with time, many young people loose heart and some join criminal gangs or indulge in the illicit drinks trade. There is the need therefore for a fundamental policy change to integrate African youths as key players in the food production chain. This would net them in as active participants in farming. Next, farming has to be transformed into a pleasurable and profitable enterprise with supportive infrastructure to make it exciting, worthwhile and recognized as an important cornerstone of modern society. Access to efficient technologies, assurance of access to high-quality seeds, inputs and links to markets would be a good starting point- a remarkable change from what their parents and rural societies have done over the years. According to Dr. James Mwangi, a Kenyan and winner of the 2012 Ernst & Young World Entrepreneur, also a council member at the G8 New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition, lessons can be borrowed from fast-growing sectors with successful youth entrepreneurship ventures such as the Techno-entrepreneurship (ICT) and social entrepreneurship sectors using social causes (co-operatives) to drive entrepreneurship and growth. Kenya and Ghana have invested in facilitating incubation centers for ICT and social entrepreneurs such as iHUB and mLABs. An ICT hub (iHUB) is a space where technologists congregate to bounce ideas around, network, work, program and design. An enabling environment is created where communities of tech- entrepreneurs can grow and innovative ideas born from collaborations and the atmosphere of the co-working space. The mLABs are wireless informal focus group meet-ups create fora for exchange of views and networking between mobile application developers and practitioners in various industry sectors. Simulation of such models in the agricultural sector could provide opportunities for the youth to develop successful agri-bioenterprises.
Pundits posit that this might not work in Africa in view of the fact that so much is still expected from governments about setting the frameworks for adopting agricultural biotechnology.
Well, but we have to start from somewhere. However, experiences from India, for example, are already confirming the positive link between technology and youth participation in agriculture. A survey conducted by the Indian Society for Cotton Improvement in 2013 found that biotech cotton has attracted youth into agriculture with more than 50% of the surveyed farmers in Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Punjab coming from the lower middle age group (21-40years). Benefits include savings on time and labour, increased productivity and farm incomes, reduction in pesticide use and climate change mitigation. Advances in biosciences could therefore have an even greater role in Africa where it is predicted three out of four people will be averagely 20 years old by the year 2020. So, African youths stand the chance of surpassing the Indian examples. Supported by conducive policies and effective communications on agronomic practices and markets, adoption of such successful models could easily be scaled up. Popular social media platforms among the youths such as Facebook, Twitter etcothers in experience sharing of hi-tech agricultural models are other modalities that could ignite the passion for agriculture by young people. On the whole, the myths surrounding agriculture, which portrays it as punitive should be challenged as efforts are directed to encouraging decent youth engagement in the sector. Radical measures such as use of celebrities (musicians, artists, comedians etc.) to spearhead food security campaigns could also ignite passion for agriculture in young people like it is doing in other social spheres.
What are the other factors that stand in as threats to future food production?
The World population is expected to reach 9 billion by 2050. This will translate to the highest demand for food ever. Now, Ambassador Kenneth Quinn, President of The World Food Prize Foundation said during the World Food Prize celebrations in 2013 that “in the coming decades, we must confront the single greatest challenge in all human history: whether we can sustainably feed the more than 9 billion people who will be on our planet by the year 2050”. The million-dollar question is: Where will the food come from, how will it be produced and who will produce it? In answer to these questions, particularly the latter, critical exploration of the role of biosciences in motivating African youth into agricultural-related enterprises, must be made. This will, no doubt tap on a huge under-utilized labour force.
How would tissue-culture business facilities entice the youths to agriculture?
There is compelling evidence that modern biotechnology applications such as tissue culture can greatly enhance productivity by generating large quantities of disease-free, clean planting material. This is applicable to the mass production of Africa’s key staple foods like banana, cassava, sweet potato and yams. You can have a look at the ISAAA Brief, 2000 on TC Banana. So, youths with a first degree in agriculture or biological sciences should be encouraged and facilitated to establish low-cost tissue-culture business facilities at community level. African governments should also start considering young people’s views and perceptions in policy-making and in reviewing agricultural and biosciences education curricular.
How would you further strengthen the belief of an ordinary African young farmer in biotech crops?
Globally, experience of nearly two decades with biotech crops has demonstrated the power of marker-assisted conventional breeding and genetic engineering in developing superior crop varieties resilient to various biotic and abiotic stresses. These bio-science tools are highly appropriate in addressing most of the problematic challenges facing African agriculture. Modern biotechnology has enabled development of crop varieties that can withstand pest attack, particularly insects and weeds, and nutritionally-enriched (bio-fortified with vitamins and micro-nutrients such as iron and protein, vital for women and early growth and development of children. Extensive work is also ongoing to develop drought-tolerant and nutrient-use efficient crops appropriate in Africa. Such powerful technologies will further increase opportunities for young people to pursue more efficient, pleasurable agricultural enterprises with high chances of success. Even without land, they can engage in a revitalized agricultural economy not controlled by large farms but with high-value crops and land-saving technologies such as modern biotechnology.
What do you think is the role of agricultural education curricula for the youths in school?
Agriculturalists agree that long-term sustainability of existing food production systems will largely depend on appropriate uptake and application of modern science and technologies. Education, empowerment and motivation of young people to take up agricultural activities are a pre-requisite for improved and sustainable food production in Africa given their big numbers. However, this is not an overnight endeavor and calls for long-term investment and an overhaul of agricultural education curricula and support systems that enables the youth to apply agricultural innovations in a pleasurable and profitable way. The mass media have an important role in changing this perception. With better opportunities for access to technologies, entrepreneurial skills and social marketing, young people could funnel their youthful idealism, energy and determination into a positive force for change within the agricultural sector.