The Future of African Agriculture: Opportunities of Digitalization to Meet African Youth Challenges in the Agri-food Sector
World Food Day (October 16th, 2020)
foodFIRST and the United Community of African Students (UCAS) of Wageningen University and Research (WUR) partnered to organise a World Food Day youth event in collaboration with the Netherland Food Partnership (NFP). The event explored youth involvement in digitalisation of agriculture to accelerate the development of the African continent. Digital agriculture is often described as the utilisation of digital technologies, innovations and data to transform business models and agricultural practices across the agri-food value chain and address bottlenecks, so as to achieve greater income for smallholder farmers, improve food and nutrition security, build climate resilience and expand youth and women inclusion. The objectives of the WFD events were to:
1. Bring together experts and those involved in related affairs to share and demonstrate inspiring and sustainable ideas for inclusive economic and agricultural development of the African continent specifically regarding the digital transformation of agriculture.
2. Enabling and leveraging meaningful youth engagement. Through youth engagement, we want to recognize young people’s worth to participate in discussions and decision-making that impact them and acknowledge the great skills and strengths young people bring to the table.
3. Connecting the (African) youth with experts and people in the field.
4. Discussing matters concerning Africa’s development with UCAS students and enhancing the relationship between Africa, WUR and the international community.
5. Creating an outcome document for governments and developing partners in the region to recognize the need for further engagement with the youth as active participants of their development and as agents for agricultural transformation. This includes among others the involvement of the youth in digitization processes.
The event began with a plenary section which introduced reasons why discussing youth involvement and digitalization are important, followed by a keynote speech from a seasoned agricultural digitalization expert, Dr Benjamin Adom. Next, three (3) separate workshops were held simultaneously, and cutting-edge topics were discussed. The virtual conference came to a close with a panel section to facilitate the exchange of dialogue and ideas about possible ways forward.
Samah Mohammad, president of the UCAS, kicked off the session by giving a welcome statement and introducing UCAS as a community committed to the generation and dissemination of innovative ideas. Ms. Mohammad then proceeded to introduce Jennie van der Mheen, manager international cooperation, Africa, WUR, as the next speaker. Ms. Mheen van der explained WUR’s commitment to involving Africans across all academic levels, as change agents that can act as catalysts for development.
Ambassador Hans Hoogeveen was introduced by the moderator. He stated the importance of youth involvement in agriculture because of their digital awareness, and thus, should be included in every level of decision-making. These levels should exceed the primary food production level to include the entire food production and processing chain.
The next speaker was Tijmen Rooseboom, Ambassador, Youth, education and works at Netherlands ministry of foreign affairs. Ambassador Rooseboom opens his speech by reiterating a profound statement from a young Nigerian farmer which goes ‘the youth does not reject agriculture, agriculture rejects us.’ This statement according to the ambassador, emphasises the need for government, policymakers, international organisations and investors alike to invest in digitalisation in order to remove the understandable negative connotation associated with farming in Africa. As the youth population in SSA and the MENA regions bulge, investments in education and employment have never been more important as the need for a skilled workforce also intensifies globally. The goal of the Netherlands is to bridge the gap between skills acquired by African youths and available jobs. The Youth at Heart is a development programme by the youth department, Dutch ministry of foreign affairs. The programme’s strategy is to make agriculture attractive to youths and empower them with the cooperative, social, technical, and business skills that are needed for farming in the 21st century. Thereby, equipping the youth with skillsets to tackle food security issues that result from disasters such as Covid-19.
The third speaker was Elizabeth Gulugulu, a young MSc candidate from Zimbabwe who spoke on the importance of youth involvement and digitalisation in agriculture from a climate change perspective. Ms. Gulugulu explained that to cope with current climate-related disasters such as drought, floods and desert locusts, digital innovation across all stages of the agricultural value chain is paramount and this can only be achieved by the youth. She highlighted a few examples of innovative solutions created by youth to foster sustainable and conservation agriculture during the Covid-19 pandemic. Specifically, the need to shift the entire concentration from the production phase to other phases of the food value chain such as sustainable storage, processing, distribution and consumption, to holistically reduce food wastage, promote food diversity, invent drought-tolerant crops etc. These loopholes in current food systems, according to Ms. Gulugulu, are opportunities for young people as digital natives to invent smart solutions. To conclude, she encouraged stakeholders to be more proactive in ensuring youth participation in agriculture by involving them at the policy formulation level.
After the lectures, questions were asked by the audience that prompted the discussion of how policies are implemented in a political and economic diverse landscape. Ambassador Hoogeveen explained that policies are first executed on a national scale where there are fewer dynamics, before they are tweaked to fit the uniqueness at play in other countries. He also discussed an idea being incubated that aims to establish digital food poles in cities across the world to inform the public about local food production in their environs. Furthermore, Ms. Gulugulu urged youth advocacy against financial policies that place farmers in a disadvantaged position.
The plenary session was rounded off by the keynote speech from Dr Benjamin Adom, Senior Programme Manager Digital Agricultural Development, WUR. Illuminating the current digital position in the African agricultural landscape, Dr Adom stated the limitations of digitalisation in African agriculture, as well as the opportunities that exist. Agriculture digitalisations occur in several facets. For example, many African rural farmers are illiterate, so the digital services created need to serve their digital illiteracy. As digitalisation continues to transform global agriculture, investment in sustainable digital infrastructure is necessary. Governments need to start by decentralising data and acting as a middleman between the public and private sector to promote the release of open data. Secondly, institutions and investors need to identify and finance viable business models that proffer trans-boundary and local solutions. Big data analytics is key for digitalisation. Hence, investing in a data portal that continuously collects data from different stakeholders will guide governments’ and institutions’ decision-making. Dr Adom explained that the poor implementation is also a consequence of lack of data, as donor projects occur for a short duration and stop without managing the entire life cycle of the project and collecting associated data. He added that to correctly measure impacts of agricultural solutions already utilised in Africa, a standardised metric is essential, which is lacking.
1. Workshop One: Youth Engagement and Climate Change: The Role of Digitalisation
Speaker: Joshua Amponsem, Founder of Green Africa Youth Organisation.
In the past few years, food systems are imparting climate change and vice versa. The situation is especially dire in sun-Saharan Africa where according to the UNDRR the most impacts of climate-related disasters such as drought occur. The youth have a key role to play to create resilient food systems. However, in many African countries, young agribusiness owners face the following challenges. First, lack of education. Many young farmers, especially in rural Africa have limited knowledge about the natural systems that drive the environmental changes they witness. Second, a poor institutional arrangement that advocates for youth involvement in decision making. Third, lack of credibility as many policymakers do not take youth seriously. Fourth, lack of finance – youths with adequate education often lack the finances. This workshop was concluded by providing possible solutions to these problems include community-led action through the mobilisation and engagement of young people within a community by international organisations committed to nature-based solutions for climate change. Indigenous knowledge transfer for older farmers and foreign innovative solutions designed for Africa from the international community.
2. Workshop Two: Knowledge Management and ICTs for Youth: How do they fit into African Agricultural Development?
Speaker: Marc Ghislan Bappa, Youth in Agriculture Advocate, Knowledge Manager African Development Bank (IDEV).
Knowledge management is the systematic management of organisational or national knowledge assets to create value. The benefits of national and international knowledge management systems coupled with Information and Communication Technology (ICT) for young agricultural professions include wider reach for communication and information, cheaper economic services, provides many market opportunities, and wider market access. ICT in knowledge management is a disruptive technology. It enhances sharing of explicit knowledge between agricultural professionals. Merging knowledge and ICT can be applied in a multidisciplinary setting and to achieve effective results, the merge should be user-centric. Youths can harness such technologies to solve relevant problems that the African agricultural landscape is confronted with. Ease of services to farmers such as drone services, precision agriculture can provide career and entrepreneurial opportunities. The speaker summarised this by employing educated African youths to maximise the benefits of ICT and knowledge management. Mr Bappa also recognised limitations that youth face such as the unavailability of data in many African countries, as well as the lack of institutional arrangements that supports youth influence in decision making across all levels of governance.
3. Workshop Three: Data and Service for Sustainable Agriculture, Irrigation and Water Management.
Speaker: Annemarie Klasse, Leader of Frame Consortium, Senior Project Manager at eLEAF.
Ms. Klasse’s lecture focused on ways to utilise satellite data for sustainable agriculture and irrigation management in Africa. Researchers have harnessed the plethora of free satellite data available for agricultural water management. Satellite data is especially important in African countries as it reduces the cost of obtaining in-situ data. For example, the FAO WaPOR data which is gross biomass water productivity data used to forecast water demand, hence, estimate how much irrigation water is needed in various African countries, as well as create hotspots of water usage. Such datasets are essential for index-insurance analysis that ultimately influence policy design and implementation, as well as provide farmers support for sustainable production.
An interactive section followed about whether or not satellite information can efficiently reach smallholder farmers in Africa. Ms Klasse explained that such ambition requires a high level of organisation and network, not to provide farmers with the raw image but with simplified analytical products. The section was concluded by suggesting that youths in the geospatial field should focus on creating tailor-made solutions for African unique challenges.
The following conclusions were made:
- There are many opportunities for youth in Africa and to achieve a resilient food system, youth should be engaged in talks with the current leaders about the future.
- Development agencies should respond to youth needs, enhance youth engagement in drafting developmental policies.
- Exhaust the information that can be derived from space technologies as well as in-situ data, especially because many SSA countries are data scarce. Partnerships and collaboration between governments and international space agency are key.
- Knowledge transfer goes both ways, the youth can learn from the older generation about indigenous practices that mitigate the effects of climate change. Also, the older generation should be supported so they can understand contemporary digital systems.
- In other to build strong food systems, digital solutions are paramount. Data is the foundation to equip the youth with market intelligence, metrics, and impact data to enable smart innovations.
- Build, strengthen and sustain global, regional, and national D4Ag communities, networks, and stakeholders to promote South-South and triangular cooperation.
- Development and improvement of already expert advisory services that Improve digital literacy and knowledge of governments, farmer organisations, and agribusinesses via demand-driven technical expertise and capacity building.