22 October 2018

Namibia: Young Entrepreneurs Lend Glamour to African Agriculture

ROME -- In a long-sleeved shirt and jeans, expertly navigating eastern Rwanda's bumpy backroads in a white four-wheel drive, Dieudonne Twahirwa looks nothing like the stereotypical African farmer.

The 30-year-old owner of Gashora Farm knows what a difference that makes.

"You need more role models," he said, standing among knee-high rows of chilli plants. "If you have young farmers, they have land and they drive to the farm, (others) think, 'Why can't I do that?'"

Twahirwa, a university graduate, bought a friend's tomato farm six years ago for US$150. He made US$1 500 in two months. "You have to link (farming) with entrepreneurship and real numbers," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Many young Africans are abandoning rural areas, choosing not to toil in the fields - a job made tougher by climate change.

But Twahirwa is one of a growing band of successful farmers working to jazz up agriculture's image on the continent.

Some 1 000 farmers now produce chillies for him. He is starting a fourth farm of his own, and exports fresh and dried chillies and oil to Britain, the United States, India and Kenya.

Africa has the world's youngest population and 65% of its uncultivated arable land.

Yet, accessing land and loans is difficult, while African productivity is low, with crop yields just 56% of the international average, according to the United Nations.

"Agriculture is mainly associated with suffering, and no young person wants to suffer," said Tamara Kaunda, who has put her career as a doctor on hold to buck the trend.

She believes African agriculture needs a make-over to shed its old-fashioned image of backbreaking work with a hoe.

"Show young people with tractors, green fields, nice irrigation systems, smartphones," she said.

A relative of Zambia's first president, the fast-talking 29-year-old runs Billionaire Farmer Agric Solutions, supplying vegetable seedlings across Zambia and in neighbouring countries. Getting young people involved in agriculture does not mean they have to work on a farm, said Nigerian Olawale Rotimi Opeyemi (29), whose agribusiness company JR Farms Africa has projects in Nigeria, Ivory Coast and Rwanda.

For example, in coffee production, the beans go from the farm to the washing station, then to be separated from the husk.

"There are people in the coffee value chain who just build washing stations, and lease them. You just have to find a place to plug in," he advised.

Stepping up the use of mechanised equipment and new technology is another key way to attract young people - and will also improve productivity, experts say.

Today, 50% to 85% of farm work in Africa, such as ploughing and sowing, is done manually, according to the Malabo Montpellier Panel, a group of international agriculture experts.

From servicing farm machinery to operating equipment for processing, packaging and distribution, mechanisation would "open up a lot of business opportunities for young people", said Ousmane Badiane, the panel's co-chair and Africa director at the International Food Policy Research Institute.

Modernising agriculture could also help turn it from seasonal to year-round work, said Rouffahi Koabo, director general of Cipmen, Niger's first business incubator.

"People need jobs not for only three months, but... revenue for the whole year," he stated.

Rwandan Felicien Mujyambere (35) was ready to migrate from his remote northern village after his wife died and his family's income dropped.

Since then, he has used the profits from selling eggs and chicks to buy another hatching machine, as well as start a banana and maize farm and a bee-keeping business.

Eric Hakizimana, meanwhile, dreamed of becoming a government official, but after high school, a lack of jobs led him to sign up for the FAO project.

- Thomson Reuters Foundation.

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