Can Africa create a new green generation of food producers?

Wednesday, 2 July 2014 10:12 GMT

A worker prunes tomato plants in the Dube AgriZone greenhouse situated at King Shaka International Airport, north of Durban, Oct. 12, 2011. 10 hectares of produce is farmed under glass in a climate-controlled facility which also recycles water. REUTERS/Rogan Ward

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A hungry planet needs more food, and Africa's youth can make a big contribution given the right incentives

By 2040 Africa will be home to one in five of the planet’s young people. What kind of work can they expect to find?

According to the International Labor Organisation, today over 81 million young people aged 18 to 25 are unemployed globally. 

In North Africa, youth unemployment is above 25 percent and the ILO does not predict a drop in the near future. Similarly, the figure for sub-Saharan Africa is around 12 percent, and predictions show a fall of just 1 percentage point by 2017.

In Mozambique, a 25 percent rise in bread prices in 2010 sparked fires, violence and looting. Half of the rioters were reported to be less than 25 years old. “The most challenging issue for African political leaders in the next 50 years will be youth unemployment,” said Ibrahim Asssane Mayaki, chief executive of the New Partnership for African Development in response to the Mozambique riots.

In Africa, young migrants from rural areas, many of them jobless, are described as the “new urban”. Africa’s rate of urbanisation, at 3.5 percent per year, is the highest in the world, concentrating disadvantaged populations and straining local resources.

That’s because by 2030, three in five people in urban areas will be younger than 18. Should this huge and combustible population continue to lack employment, then civil unrest and crime are likely to rise.

Meanwhile, alarm bells are already sounding about how the planet will feed 9.6 billion people by 2050 - especially as climate change impacts crop yields, changes weather patterns and makes water scarcer in many areas. Across all crops in sub-Saharan Africa, yields are expected to decline by 15 to 20 percent by 2050, according to forecasts from the World Bank.

Africa is home to almost 65 percent of the world’s uncultivated arable land, and boasts a large share of the world’s natural resources. Agriculture accounts for 32 percent of GDP, and four fifths of food produced is produced by smallholder farmers. National investments can be made that will help Africa respond to the coming food insecurity and destabilisation made worse by climate change.

First and foremost, the expected declines in crop yields must be reconciled with the predicted increase in population. This means crop yields must be at least stabilized, and ideally increased.


Fortunately, by making cost-effective investments in ecosystem productivity, many African countries have already begun to realise bigger benefits.

One project in Zambia, led by the Kasisi Agricultural Training Centre, has promoted conservation agriculture techniques. These promote application of manure to soil, no burning, low or no tillage, and crop rotation.

Higher soil fertility is achieved by using manure which adds nitrogen, bacteria and other organic compounds to the soil, while no burning and low-or-no tillage reduce soil disruptions, sustaining natural soil processes. Crop rotations are a natural way of getting different nutrients into the soil (in a leave-behind effect), and adapting to changing weather conditions. 

The number of farmers who reported an increase in production due to conservation agriculture in the Zambia project rose from 2.3 percent to 75 percent. An overall improvement in household food security was experienced, with staple crops lasting on average up to 9.5 months of the year compared to 6.5 months previously.

Additionally, there was an increase in the number of households with one or more surplus farm products for sale, from 26 percent to 69 percent. Nearly two thirds of the households reported that sales of these products were contributing half or more of their income – boosting food security further due to greater purchasing power.

Ensuring that food production is resilient to climate change impacts also means promoting diversification – for example, moving from reliance on sea fishing to fish farming in dug ponds, or planting multiple crops on a farm.


Creating the right policy environment is as essential as adequate education. This includes ensuring that youth are engaged, excited about and well-educated in different kinds of work related to food production.

Use of electronic devices and mobile phones is one example of how new technologies are revitalising traditional industries in Africa.

Utilising channels like this to promote agriculture and educate young people could go a long way in engaging new groups of people with the sector. Greater awareness of the benefits of agriculture as a career needs to be built amongst young people, in particular highlighting opportunities for greater market engagement, innovation and farming as a business.

Primary and high school education could include modules on farming, from growing to marketing crops. Youths need to become part of policy discussions at the local and national levels.

Facilitating their involvement will also be necessary. Innovative financing like soft loans for youth who come up with innovative proposals in agriculture or micro-franchising could be an important mechanism for mobilising investment in young people’s projects.

Policies must also support small-scale producers. When nearly three quarters of the household budget is spent on food, few Africans can afford a 25 percent price hike on a staple. That’s why the African Union has declared 2014 the “Year of Agriculture and Food Security”.

Africa can capitalise on the Year of Agriculture and Food Security to safeguard the future of its agricultural productivity against climate change, environmental and human stresses by ensuring that ecosystems and their functions are protected from further degradation.

Ecosystems support agricultural production by providing everything from water and soil resources to pollination and pest control services. The maintenance of healthy ecosystems underpins the resilient supply of the ecosystem goods and services that support the availability, access and use of foods, both farmed and wild, strengthening the stability of food systems.

Already 240 million Africans are hungry, and by 2050 Africa expects to be home to 2 billion people. If we are going to realistically tackle food insecurity, today’s agricultural initiatives will have to recognise the interconnectivity between economic, ecological, cultural and institutional structures so as to secure food supplies against climate change tomorrow.

Encouraging comprehensive policies and sizable investments in tomorrow’s generation will help scale up the ecosystem-based actions that are already working to enhance food security on the continent.

Richard Munang is UNEP's Africa Regional Climate Change Co-ordinator. He tweets as @MTingem. Jesica Andrews is the ecosystem adaptation officer with UNEP’s Regional Office for Africa: @lapeqi