Stephanie Brittain: “When I Grow Up… I Want To Be A Plant Scientist”

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In this guest post, Stephanie Brittain of Agriculture for Impact outlines the need to encourage more young Africans to study the agricultural sciences, as a route to a food secure and prosperous continent.

In 2012, sub-Saharan African countries’ food import bill reached US$37.7 billion. Turning Africa into a food producer rather than food importer will depend on many things: reenergizing African soil that is highly degraded, improving the flow of resources to smallholder farmers, and finding jobs for Africa’s ballooning young population.

On present trends, African food production systems will only be able to meet 13% of the continent’s food needs by 2050. A good place to start addressing this challenge is with Africa’s youth. More young people need to study agricultural sciences to breed seed varieties that will increase yields, resist the ever increasing shocks and stressors such as drought, and help return nutrients to the soil.

Presently, just 2% of students enrolled in university study the agricultural sciences. Agriculture by most accounts is (literally) a dirty and badly paid job.  Meanwhile, 26% of students study humanities, but with such high levels of competition for white-collar jobs, unemployment is rife in cities and rural areas.

Strengthening Educational Institutions for Agricultural Sciences

At Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda, students are finding a better balance between curriculum and opportunity.  Kick-starting the trend to opt for a career in the agricultural sciences, they have a lot to say about what agriculture can do for Africa and young people.  So how do we encourage more of Africa’s 200 million youth to do the same?

When asked why he wanted to be a plant breeder, Binaissa Castiano, a maize breeder from Mozambique says that ‘drought in Mozambique is serious, we have only one rainy season so breeding becomes the most important thing to do, and for people to learn so that they can solve the problem’.

When asked how young people can be encouraged to take up agricultural professions, Binaissa stated that there is a need to ‘improve and promote the cause of agriculture and show the real impact of agriculture, which will encourage other young people to come and start agricultural courses’. Molly Allen, a Cassava breeder from Uganda stated that ‘young people should be encouraged to be part of agriculture because it is the backbone of the world…if you want to change malnutrition in the world you can do it through agriculture’.

Adding value

When food leaves the breeding laboratory, and travels further along the supply chain, extra value can be added to raw products in the form of processing. This added value will result in extra profit for the agriculture sector, which should make it a more attractive career option for young people.

SESACO Food Company in Uganda, for example, produces high value nutritious foods made from millet, maize, soybeans, groundnuts and sesame. The company has 80 employees, (over half of which are women) with a monthly sales average of UGX 100million (US$ 39,000 – a profit any young person should want a share of).

Promoting Entrepreneurship

Providing students with business management training alongside agricultural training gives them the means to move away from survival and become business people. Agricultural colleges that provide business management training, communication and leadership should be scaled-up and replicated across Africa to provide students with the correct combination of skills required to succeed.

‘When I grow up… I want to be a plant scientist’ is not a phrase you would generally expect a young person to say. However, agricultural science is an underdeveloped and undervalued sector in Africa, especially amongst the youth who perceive it as outdated, unprofitable and hard work. Yet, this is not the case. Agriculture is a dynamic sector, offering a multitude of opportunities for entrepreneurship along the entire agribusiness value chain.

There is a need to add value, training, technology and opportunities to the sector to encourage youth to become the future plant scientists, soil scientists, farmers and agribusiness entrepreneurs who can reshape food security in Africa.

For more information and examples of how to encourage youth engagement in African Agriculture, download the June 2014 Montpellier Panel Report ‘Small & Growing: Entrepreneurship in African Agriculture’.