According to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, the world needs to open up 6 million hectares of land every year for the next 30 years if it is to meet expected food demand. And Africa holds 60% of the available land.
Agriculture is also key to Africa’a development prospects, already accounting for 40% of GDP output. But here’s the thing: the average age of an African farmer is 60, and counting. The continent is in danger of failing to meet its agricultural potential, if it doesn’t get younger people involved.
With this, and other challenges, in mind, the Rockefeller Foundation recently organized a contest to find the best ideas to bring young people back to the land. "We’ve got to attract more people, particularly small shareholders into farming," says Michael Myers, director of the foundation’s Centennial Initiative, which it is organizing to celebrate its 100th anniversary.
"Often the farms are not seen as viable economically. And there are concerns that young people no longer see farming as a cool thing to do. There are massive pressures for young people to migrate to urban areas. And that’s not just true in Africa, but across the planet."
Rockefeller received 1,763 entries, from 112 countries, for the three challenges it set: encouraging young people to go into farming, improving the efficiency of water use in agriculture, and using data to help urban communities. Almost half (49%) of the entries came from Africa, with 741 in the first category. Many were "geared towards changing perceptions of farming", Myers says.
The three winners, who each receive $100,000, are:
From Mali, FarmQuest is a reality radio show that follows eight contestants as they cultivate a small plot of land. They receive advice from older farmers and business-people, and face tough decisions about planting, and negotiating with buyers. The best two plots win. The producers say the program can prove "to young people, the selected farmers and the audience alike, that farming as a business can provide a good—and exciting—livelihood."
Kenyan Joseph Macharia is using a combination of radio and text—entertainment and agricultural advice—to reach its audience. "Young people can listen to stories and get entertained. But there’s also text messaging connected to it, so when the listeners have questions they can get those answers through that. We want to try that out and see if the combination works," Myers says.
A school-based program from Nigeria, Youth Agro Entrepreneurs gives free hands-on agricultural education to young people, allowing them to accumulate money that they can use to start their own ventures. "We liked it because it combines market forces and education into a single project," says Myers.
Rockefeller will now help the projects get off the ground, and evaluate which work best. Myers reckons $100,000 is a "good sum of money" because it helps jumpstart a project while still atrracting grassroots organizations.
"We found is that is that if you go higher than that, you get bigger organizations. We were deliberately shooting for the little guy—people who are on the ground and in their communities."