When Judith graduated from university with a commerce degree, she expected to land a job in a bank or with one of the many financial institutions in Kenya. However, two years down the road, she was still looking for a job and living with her relatives in the city. A few months ago, she decided to try her hand at farming.
In the first season, most of her tomato crop died due to a disease attack. Despite agriculture being the single largest source of income for rural Africans and contributing to a quarter of the continent’s gross domestic product, Judith struggled to find the technical information to make farming work. She eventually joined a WhatsApp group where young farmers were connecting with each other and sharing information. It is in this group that she told her story a few days ago.
This pattern is constantly repeated across the continent. Young people go into agriculture, often because they cannot get other jobs, and they start their efforts through trial and error. Like Judith, many young people’s main source of information on agriculture is social media, mainly Facebook communities and WhatsApp groups.
In these spaces, such as one called the African Farmers Club, which has close to 100,000 members, young people share information and pictures about their experiences, they look for markets for their produce, and they seek encouragement. But this is insufficient. While peer-to-peer learning is important, the advice shared on these sites varies in quality and accuracy. In a recent post, members of the African Farmers Club realized that just sharing information amongst themselves was not enough, and were seeking an agronomist to join the group.
For the agricultural revolution to happen, investment in the practical skills set of youth in the field of agriculture through dedicated training at specialized technical institutes is a must.
Agricultural training institutes can provide practical knowledge and help youth put their creativity, love for technology and innovation to use. Evidence from other sectors shows that skills development has had a huge impact on productivity and competitiveness in sectors. For example in Australia, studies show that an 11.8 percent increase in certificate and advanced diploma qualifications in certain technical areas could result in a 2.5 percent and 1.5 percent increase in labour productivity.
Right now, however, many countries are lacking in offering these kinds of practical training.
In Kenya, there is only one agricultural training institution - Bukura Agricultural College - even though agriculture is one of the five economic pillars in Kenya’s vision 2030. In contrast to the one agriculture training institute, there are 16 national technical colleges offering training in other sectors such as engineering and hospitality. To make agricultural training more accessible at least each one of the 47 counties in the country needs to establish an agricultural training institute.
In 2015, Rwanda embarked on plans to set up a practical agriculture training institute in Bugesera District to respond to existing skills gaps in the agriculture sector and to deliver on the country’s agricultural targets. But with 19 percent of the population aged 15 and 24, and with a youth unemployment rate of 13 percent, one agriculture training center is insufficient.
Nigeria started a program called the Accelerated Agricultural Development Scheme in 2017. The scheme targets youth between 18 and 35 years and brings together the public sector, state governments and the private sector to provide training, efficient extension services, basic infrastructure, and mentorship for youth. However, such short-term programs that are removed from the national technical training programs cannot reach the scale that is required to have impact.
Some may argue that specialty institutes are not needed because there are universities offering degrees in agriculture, but evidence shows that most graduates of the program do not necessarily end up in agriculture. And of course, setting up technical training in agriculture cannot be done in isolation from other supporting skills, like agribusiness, marketing, business development and entrepreneurship. This is an opportunity for an expansion of the agriculture curriculum and linkage of the proposed agricultural training institutes with the industry. In addition to providing full-fledged courses in agriculture, the institutes can serve as centers for short-term training based on the needs of young farmers.
In building these technical institutes, it also is important not to replicate the gender gap that currently exists in technical and vocation training. A study of 16 vocational training centers in 2014 found that female enrollment was much lower than male enrollment, especially for technical courses. This is due to, among other factors, negative cultural stereotyping about female performance in technology and engineering, lack of role models, and low quality of training. Technical agricultural training must be gender-inclusive both in content and delivery, including measures to attract both young men and women, 50 percent targets for young women, addressing stereotypes and offering incentives.
If we really want to see youth like Judith take on agriculture successfully, governments must invest in building their skills, including through building technical training institutes. Until this happens, the transformation of Africa’s agriculture will remain a pipedream.
Sam Dindi works in the field of Tourism and wildlife management. Follow him @mazingirayetu
Jemimah Njuki is an expert on agriculture, food security, and women’s empowerment and works as a senior program specialist with IDRC. She is an Aspen Institute New Voices Fellow. Follow her @jemimah_njuki