One of the resolutions from the recently concluded AGRF Summit 2023 in Dar es Salaam focused on gender equity and youth engagement. The forum placed youth and women at the centre of agricultural transformation, aiming to create resilient, sustainable, and equitable food systems for Africa and the world.
As the forum proceeded, my thoughts turned to the youth, who had long viewed agriculture as a no-hope sector, especially given the expansive big dreams they had in mind. However, as the AGRF Forum concluded, I perceived a significant shift among the youth. Their previously negative perceptions about agriculture were beginning to change positively, mainly due to the opportunities identified by various stakeholders who directly or indirectly engage with the agriculture sector. There are burgeoning hopes and opportunities ripe for the taking among the youth.
What specifically concerned me was based on the research findings obtained from a study I conducted in Mbeya. The findings revealed that the youth's attitudes and preferences towards cropland use significantly differed from those of adults. More surprisingly, the youth, who were expected by the community to be the more energetic labour force in the sector, were converting more of their productive (fertile) croplands into forestland than the elders. They did so primarily because of their dwindling interest in agriculture, especially crop cultivation.
Several factors might explain this trend, including firsthand experiences with the adverse impacts of climate change on agriculture, notably the unpredictable rainfall patterns. Consequently, many youths opted out of crop cultivation, so instead, they decided to convert their productive croplands into forestlands.
This shift towards forestland is an emerging trend in various parts of the country. While practitioners cite numerous reasons for this change, it poses a significant challenge to the agricultural sector by threatening overall food production. Notably, even though some youth converted their productive croplands for diverse purposes ranging from future investment prospects to income generation, firewood, or building materials, the findings unequivocally showed that using croplands for agriculture (crop cultivation) was more economically viable than converting them into forestlands.
To me, the AGRF Forum 2023 symbolises a pivotal U-turn or game changer for those youths in Tanzania and Africa who had distanced themselves (lost interest) from agriculture over the years. A comprehensive engagement of the youth, including those already involved in the sector and those rekindling their interest after years of disappointment, could revolutionise the food system in particular and the agricultural sector as a whole.
It’s crucial to mention that, besides focusing on youth and women, the forum also paved the way for myriad stakeholders. That involved strengthening partnerships between African governments, businesses specialising in agri-products, civil societies, farmers, farmers' organisations, and research institutions. The latter are especially critical as they spearhead agricultural research, including but not limited to developing new crop varieties, and find solutions to prevailing sectoral challenges to ensure sustainable food systems for Africa.
Moreover, the AGRF 2023 Forum emphasised the importance of integrating modern technologies and innovations in agriculture. By adopting technological advancements, the youth can be further incentivized, and they will start seeing agriculture not just as manual labour but as a dynamic sector brimming with various opportunities for innovation.
Digital platforms, smart farming (agriculture), and precision agriculture can provide the tools necessary for young entrepreneurs to increase crop yields, optimise land resource use, and even venture into agri-tech startups. Integrating technology with traditional farming methods can bridge the generational gap by appealing to the digitally inclined youth and, at the same time, enhancing the efficiency and sustainability of agricultural practices. Through the harmonisation of old and new farming methods, we can truly unlock the full potential of Africa's agricultural sector and pave the way for a prosperous future for Africa and the world at large.