Making African agriculture achieve its potential

Farmer harvesting vegetables
Copyright: S.Kilungu/CCAFS

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  • Agriculture remains unattractive to the youth of Africa
  • But the continent needs its brightest youth to make agriculture successful
  • A new prize could help drive innovations and the youth to agriculture

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Former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo argues that African agriculture needs innovation and the youth.

Every year, thousands of young Africans migrate from their families’ small, often struggling farms in the countryside. Their dream — sometimes fulfilled, often not — is to find a more rewarding and stimulating life in the continent’s rapidly growing cities. Few return but even fewer ever completely sever their ties.
It’s a complicated connection and one I deeply understand. My own exodus to the city as a young man opened up lifetime opportunities that culminated in serving as president of Nigeria, Africa’s largest economy.  But not only did I retain my ties to agriculture, I have now returned to my roots.  I’m a farmer again — at Obasanjo Farms Limited — and I’ve never been happier.

“We need Africa’s best and brightest to embrace agriculture as a calling and a career.”

Olusegun Obasanjo, Africa Food Prize committee

Working as a farmer once more has given me a better perspective on two of the biggest challenges facing Africa today: how do we provide employment opportunities to the millions of young Africans under 25 years of age so they can stay in the village and farm? And how do we put an end to the seemingly endless cycles of food crises that are, as I write, playing out again with dismaying familiarity in parts of eastern and southern Africa?

US$1 trillion food market

Fortunately, more and more Africans such as myself are seeing these issues as intertwined. We see agribusiness as Africa’s biggest opportunity to not only end hunger and malnutrition, but also as Africa’s best hope for generating income and employment, particularly in rural regions. The World Bank estimates that by 2030, demand for food in our rapidly growing urban areas will create a market for food products worth US$1 trillion. [1]This market needs to be owned and operated by African farmers, African agriculture businesses and African food companies.
But one thing is clear to me as I return to farming: to achieve its potential, African agriculture needs a fresh infusion of innovation and talent.
I have many fond memories of my childhood in a small farming settlement near Abeokuta, the capital of Nigeria´s Ogun State. By the age of five, I was accompanying my father to the fields where we grew cassava, maize, plantain, oil palm and other crops. My father, a proud Yoruba man, was considered the most successful farmer in our village. While living with few modern amenities, we grew plenty of food, and we enjoyed the cultural wealth of our Yoruba traditions and history.
Ultimately, this way of life was unable to withstand pressures that would soon intensify —population growth, political turmoil, land scarcity and soil degradation.

Agriculture: a calling and career

Today, African farmers need several resources that my father lacked but which farmers elsewhere in the world take for granted. We need improved crop varieties developed to resist diseases and tolerate drought. We need access to modern inputs, such as fertilisers. We need markets where farmers can profit from their labour and thus justify investments in improved production. We need affordable credits that all small businesses require, and extension services that help us keep abreast of sustainable farming practices.

“We need improved crop varieties developed to resist diseases and tolerate drought. We need access to modern inputs, such as fertilisers.”

Olusegun Obasanjo, Africa Food Prize committee

But ultimately we need people. Specifically, we need Africa’s best and brightest to embrace agriculture as a calling and a career.
Recently, I agreed to chair the selection committee for the new Africa Food Prize, an award that aims to recognise outstanding individuals or institutions taking control of Africa’s agriculture agenda. It started in 2005 in Oslo, Norway, as the Yara Prize in response to a call by Kofi Annan, then UN secretary-general, for a green revolution in agriculture. [2[. It was named after its sponsor, Yara International ASA Norway, an organisation that promotes sustainable agriculture and the environment.
By renaming it as Africa Food Prize and moving it to Africa, it has given the award a distinctive Africa flavour and ownership. This year, the award is also a substantial award: US$100,000 for the winner, higher than the previous US$60,000.

The hope is that the prize and its cadre of winners will signal to the world that agriculture is a priority for Africa that all should embrace. It can call attention to the institutions and individuals who are inspiring and driving innovations that can be replicated across the continent.
I sometimes portray my return to farming as coming full circle. But in reality, while I cherish my childhood memories, I don’t want to return to the past. I want to be part of the future, where farming in Africa is a lucrative, exciting entrepreneurial pursuit and young people aspire to be farmers because they see talented men and women building a rewarding career in farming and farm-related work.
I hope that the Africa Food Prize quickly becomes a symbol of all that agriculture in Africa can offer and that one day soon, we will see a shift, when young people in urban areas will look longingly to the countryside and think: there lies the land of opportunity.
Olusegun Obasanjo is a former president of Nigeria
This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Sub-Saharan Africa English desk.