Andrea Leadsom is right – we need to get more young people into farming

Originally published in The Telegraph on 05 October 2016.

By GORDON CONWAY

CREDIT: ANDREW FOX/ALAMY

Eastern European workers pick strawberries inside a polytunnel on a farm in Shropshire CREDIT: ANDREW FOX/ALAMY

When recently appointed Environment Secretary Andrea Leadsom suggested that young Britons could take over post-Brexit fruit-picking and farm labour, her comments were met with derision.

Speaking at a Conservative Party conference fringe event in Birmingham, she said she hoped that more young people could be “encouraged to engage with countryside matters”, and that “the concept of a career in food production is going to be much more appealing going forward.”

Her remarks inspired ridicule over the prospect that millennials might go back to working the land in the wake of the UK withdrawing from the EU.

Yet in truth Mrs Leadsom’s has successfully highlighted precisely why we need to do more to change attitudes towards agricultural careers and inspire more young people to get involved.

According to a Defra survey in 2013, the number of farm holders under the age of 45 fell from almost a quarter in 2000 to just 14 per cent in 2010. With an average age of 59, the population of British farmers is growing old.

And it is not just in the UK. Statistics in Africa revealed a similarly aging population of agricultural workers with an average age of 60 despite almost two thirds of the continent’s population being under the age of 24. Students in the UK choosing to study agriculture at university – some 19,000 – are dwarfed by the 280,000 school leavers applying to do business-related degrees. The question we must therefore as is: who will continue to feed the world if the world’s farmers are on the brink of retirement?

At the same time, a growing global demand for food is putting more pressure than ever on the family farms and smallholders that provide 80 per cent of the world’s food supply. With the UN stating that food production must double by 2050 to feed a growing population, it is essential that we encourage and enable a new generation of agriculturists both at home and around the world, or we will be left with food that is both scarce and expensive.

CREDIT: PAUL GROVER/TELEGRAPH

A woman picks Gala apples to ship to Tesco at the start of the English apple season at Hononton Farm, Kent, September 2016 CREDIT: PAUL GROVER/TELEGRAPH

On top of these challenges, climate change is expected to dramatically reduce yields across the world. In fact, the recent El Niño induced-drought, that left approximately 100 million people in need of food assistance, proves it already is. So increasing our global food supply with this added challenge, as well as scarcity of vital resources like water and land, mean that today’s farmers now also need to be scientists, engineers and web developers. That’s right! Technology-led, cutting edge career paths. This is where we can inspire the young to get involved with agriculture.

Fruit-picking in Europe and tilling the fields in Africa are both necessary and noble professions – but we need to dispel the myth that this is the only way to engage with farming. The global advocacy group Farming First has launched a campaign this week that seeks to show young people that the industry is not just about manual labour, but also about innovation, education and communication.

A career in agriculture could involve working with high-resolution satellite imagery to enable farmers across the world to better understand the health of their crops, allowing them to take steps to increase productivity or overall yield, like UK based company Digital Globe. It could involve developing state-of-the-art weather and climate-modelling technology to measure the risk exposure that retailers, buyers, banks and farmers will face in the future, like the Imperial College based initiative WINnERS. Or it could involve promoting sustainable and inclusive business models in the developing world, empowering poor farmers and catalysing economic growth, like the London-based NGO Twin.

Opportunities in agriculture have never been greater for our young people, both in the UK, and all around the world. Our future challenges need future solutions and only the next generation can deliver them. We must do all we can to help them do that.

Professor Sir Gordon Conway is Director of Agriculture for Impact and a Farming First spokesperson

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The power of working together: International day of Cooperatives, July 2nd 2016

By Alice Marks, @alicemarks0

International Day of Peace celeberation in Juba.

Camaraderie in South Sudan – Credit UN Photo, Isaac Billy

The International Day of Cooperatives is the perfect time to celebrate the power of pulling together in the face of adversity. Working together can create social capital that enables individuals to achieve goals that they may not be able to achieve alone. Although ‘Social capital’ might sound like something intangible, it has a huge value. It is a measurement of connections between people – the glue that binds people and the reason to work towards common goals. In other words, it’s the value of ‘who you know’ rather than ‘what you know’ and evidence shows that communities with high social capital are more able to become economically and sustainably prosperous.

A group of people that is cohesive, value each other and stick together through hardship, is more able to work together to overcome challenges. The ability to do this is particularly important for communities with low incomes, limited education and few physical assets because it can create a social safety net that helps mitigate shocks or stresses. This is where cooperatives can come in and form a framework through which people can unite under shared needs and aspirations. Agricultural cooperatives work in a number of ways that can be beneficial to individuals and communities. A group of farmers make a more attractive customer than a single farmer because they spread risk amongst them, so facilitating access to finance, agricultural inputs and external markets.

Cooperatives support one another

For example, the Association pour la vision des Eleves de Nyonirima (AVEN) is a group of twelve young men and women from northern Rwanda. The AVEN members decided to form a cooperative after participating in Technoserve’s STRYDE training program, which equips school-leavers with training in business management skills, financial literacy and personal development, then links them to financial services. [Read more…]

Top 8 Quotes from “African Farmers in The Digital Age: How Digital Solutions Can Enable Rural Development”

“African Farmers in the Digital Age” is a special edition anthology, published in partnership with Foreign Affairs that brings together the views of twenty leading thinkers on all aspects of food systems, smallholder farming, and the transformative opportunity presented by digital technology. The authors of the essays in this collection paint a picture of what a thriving African food system can accomplish and lay out some concrete steps for building that system. According to the editor, Gideon Rose, “From mobile phones to big data, nutrition to climate change, the collection covers it all, with authors who have something powerful to say and the authority to be heard.” Here are some of the most insightful and salient quotes to give you a taste of the wisdom the anthology has to offer:

  1. “The combination of digital technology and human creativity in deploying it will revolutionize life for Africa’s farmers by overcoming isolation, speeding up change, and taking success to scale.” — Kofi Annan, Sir Gordon Conway and Sam Dryden

Access to digital technology can make the distance between a remote farmer and the market even shorter than a straight line. Whereas many smallholders live several hours by foot from most markets, mobile platforms can share market price information or connect farmers to buyers in an instant.

  1. “It is time to change the way we think. Farmers are not the cause of Africa’s poverty; they are a potential solution. They are key to creating the future envisioned by the SDGs.” — Kofi Annan, former UN Secretary General

Check out this blog “Agriculture in Every SDG” to find out how agriculture is a central element for achieving each and every one of the recently adopted 17 Sustainable Development Goals.  You might also want to have a look at the report “No Ordinary Matter” – the Montpellier Panel shows several ways that farmers can help to improve their soil quality and even sequester carbon!

soil carbon sequestration

  1. “If Africa’s evolving food system leaves its smallholder farmers behind, the continent will not reach its immense potential.” — Sir Gordon Conway and Sam Dryden

[Read more…]

Sparks of prosperity

By Katrin Glatzel

During his visit to Kenya two weeks ago, President Obama told Kenyans that their country is at a crossroads and urged them to “choose the path to progress” by continuing to root out corruption and be more inclusive of women and girls. He emphasised the role of young people in particular, saying that “when it comes to the people of Kenya — particularly the youth — I believe there is no limit to what you can achieve.  A young, ambitious Kenyan today should not have to do what my grandfather did, and serve a foreign master. You don’t need to do what my father did, and leave your home in order to get a good education and access to opportunity. Because of Kenya’s progress, because of your potential, you can build your future right here, right now”.

pic1Africa’s youth hold the key to unlocking the continent’s success. With almost 200 million people aged between 15 and 24, Africa has the youngest population in the world and with estimates suggesting that Africa’s labour force will be 1 billion strong by 2040, it will be largest and youngest worldwide. However, 70% of young people live on less than US$2 per day and youth underemployment is high as Africa’s urban labour markets are unable to absorb the increasing young population. This seems like a dim prospect for Africa’s young women and men. However, there is reason for optimism: investment in rural and food sector entrepreneurship in Africa can achieve sustainable food and nutrition security for the continent and significantly contribute to Africa’s rural and urban growth. [Read more…]

Entrepreneurship in African Agriculture: Sylva Food Solutions, Zambia.

By Stephanie Brittain

I recently attended an All Party Parliamentarian Group (APPG) meeting on ‘Sourcing from Smallholders’. This was the second in a series of round-table discussions to gather evidence for the APPG on Agriculture and Food Development’s inquiry into smallholder agribusiness development. One of the African entrepreneurs that spoke about her experiences of supporting smallholder farmers is Sylvia Banda, Managing Director of Sylva Food Solutions in Zambia.

Almost two-thirds of Zambia’s 14.5 million people live in rural areas, where most are engaged in smallholder subsistence farming. However, much of the food they produce is wasted due to a lack of markets for their produce and inadequate knowledge of effective food preservation techniques. The low demand for local farm produce is also driven by negative perceptions of locally-grown food. Sylvia has helped to change this perception by working with women smallholder farmers to teach post-harvest techniques, food processing, marketing skills and nutrition.

Taking root

_66027737_sylva22Sylvia started her entrepreneurial journey in 1986, whilst still employed as a Catering Officer in the Ministry of Education.

“Being  the only employee and with no start-up capital, I had to ‘borrow’ the basic materials such as cooking oil, chicken, salt and vegetables from my own kitchen at home. I had so much to arrange that I didn’t have the time or the money to buy furniture. So, on the first day my customers ate standing up! I realised that I had forgotten to buy the tables and chairs. Quickly, I told them that they were having a standing buffet! ” she recalls.

Despite this, her restaurant was a great success. Years later, however, Sylvia was frustrated at seeing how imported food is preferred by the majority, particularly in urban areas.

“Imported food has less nutritional value and is more expensive than local food. This, combined with the poverty of smallholder farmers struggling to sell their crops locally, led me to shift my focus”.

She now works to empower local farmers and promote local food for poverty alleviation. [Read more…]

Emilia and her farmers

By Katrin Glatzel

Meet Emilia Abibo Savio, one of three agrodealers in the Sussundenga district in central Mozambique. Emilia used to own a small shop in the city of Chimoio. After the death of her husband in 2007, she decided to expand her business and opened a small shop to sell agricultural inputs and fertiliser. Emilia’s story is an example and also a symbol of the important role of agrodealers in helping a country harness its agriculture potential.

But let’s start at the beginning.

Civil unrest over 20 years, frequent droughts in the south of the country, coupled with heavy floods near the many waterways that transect the country, have thus far inhibited an agricultural transformation in Mozambique. Even so, Mozambique could be a regional breadbasket. The country has much potentially usable arable and irrigable land, in many agricultural production zones, particularly in central and northern Mozambique. Sesame, pigeon peas, and cashew exports are significant and rising, not to mention exports of industrial crops such as cotton, leaf tobacco and sugarcane. Yet, the production of grain and most other food crops remains stagnant, while irrigated area is way below what is needed to increase yields and total agricultural output. In addition, the use and application of fertiliser remains low.  The uptake of fertiliser at just under 5% and is an indicator that farmers find it difficult to access fertilisers, let alone purchase it at a price that will allow them to obtain sufficient and reliable returns from their investments. Agrodealers can play an important role in making fertilisers and seeds more easily and readily accessible to remote farming communities, while at the same time provide much-needed advice on the type of seeds and fertiliser suitable for certain soils. [Read more…]

Young people in Agriculture: Aspirations and Value Chains

By Alice Marks

Visiting the agricultural development projects supported by the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) in Mozambique, I was amazed by the number of young faces I saw in the villages. However, the resounding sentiment is that young people do not want to be farmers.  This is causing deep concern amongst many over how to keep the growing youth of Mozambique in agriculture. With the 11th highest birth rate in the world, and a growth rate of 2.45% a year, the population of Mozambique is growing, fast. More food will soon be needed to sustain the expanding population.

Young farmers

Young farmers in Mozambique

The aspirations of young Mozambicans are changing.  They don’t want to endure the same backbreaking agricultural work of their parents and prefer instead to seek office work in the cities. Mozambique now has an urbanisation rate of 3.05% per year, but whilst rural to urban migration of young people raises concerns, it may also provide opportunities. There are many prospects for young Mozambicans in the expanding agricultural sector to earn a better living and contribute to the countries food security.

But how can the agricultural sector engage with Mozambique’s growing youth?

[Read more…]