Farming is cool

hr-shutterstock_383670928-convertedThere’s a different kind of agricultural revolution going on in Africa. A new generation of young farmers are exchanging the office for the soil. Sophie Ikenye reports

As a journalist, I still thrive on chance encounters and conversations that can lead to a fascinating story, especially when I’m reporting from Africa to a global audience. Although I’ve interviewed presidents and leaders for Focus on Africa, what I really love is interviewing the everyday people in Africa who are doing extraordinary things or changing our perceptions in some way.

I had one of these chance encounters two years ago, when I had a very interesting conversation with a vibrant 27-year-old man from central Kenya who’d abruptly changed his vocation. A lawyer by training, he told me he’d struggled quite a bit in his career, so he approached his father and asked for a small piece of land to farm. Within two years he’d managed to weave his way into the local market and became one of its biggest vegetable suppliers. He told me that he is not the only young person who has turned to farming after discontent with an office career.

I discovered, after many conversations with young people, that all across Africa there are young enterprising men and women who have decided to take on farming – an occupation that has, traditionally, been perceived as a vocation for the older generation. Boring, tedious and with little glamour is how agriculture has long been branded. However, it seems things are changing as the youth step in…

At BBC World News, we’re always seeking and reporting on the positive stories coming out of Africa. To showcase the diverse nature of the continent, we don’t just tell stories of death, disease and destruction, but also of innovation, technology and entrepreneurism, which is why the Focus on Africa team traversed the continent, looking for progressive young African farmers, so we can tell their story to our global audience in the series, Farming is Cool.

Trendy and focused
A three-hour drive from South Africa’s biggest city, Johannesburg, lies Senekal, a farm in the Free State Province. The first thing that catches my eye is not exactly what I’d imagined. A young lady sporting the popular mohawk haircut is on a tractor, doing the farm rounds. Trendy and vibrant, 34-year-old Dimakatso Nono abandoned a lucrative career in Johannesburg’s financial services industry and became a farmer five years ago. She tells me she wanted to do something more meaningful with her potential and decided to take to the farm.

Dimakatso manages over 2000 acres of farmland, which is owned by her father. As cool as the change of lifestyle has been, it has not been easy for her. The recent drought in South Africa has taken its toll on the farm. There was no apple production because of the heat, and sowing maize and sunflower also could not be carried out. The losses were huge and Dimakatso had to let go of some of the farm workers.

The impact of climate on the farm has not discouraged her at all, and she has plenty of tips for young farmers. She says, based on her experience, that working on your own is really tough and if you’re very small and trying to access platforms such as funding, or markets, it’s even tougher. She recommends joining an organised agricultural association. Like many farmers across Africa, Dimakatso also has to deal with issues such as lack of appropriate finance and access to markets. That said it’s not all doom and gloom.

She’s had some notable successes such as record-keeping, which she says is number one. She can now tell where every one of her animals is and what they are doing. Every activity is recorded.

So does she ever have days when she thinks she made the wrong move from the corporate world?

“No, not at all, not for me. Look, I’m not always on top of the world but on such days I appreciate the fact that if I need to rest or recuperate there’s no better place than here, where you have the nature to support you.”

As an African woman and a journalist, there is something that strikes me about Dimakatso, and I immediately know that I want to share her story with women across the world, especially young women. You see, it’s not every day you come across young female commercial farmers in Africa – especially not women who abandon lucrative office jobs for the soil. As I leave Dimakatso’s farm, I get the feeling that Africa is experiencing a period when the phrase ‘male-dominated’ or ‘female-dominated’ is slowly fizzling out, particularly among young people.

Quality is key
West of the continent, a one-and-a-half-hour drive from Ghana’s capital, Accra, lies Akwapim South and, in it, a small village called Obotwere. My mission is to meet a young Ghanaian man who, on one fine day six years ago, bought a one-way ticket, packed his bags and came home to Africa, abandoning his office job as an accountant in Pennsylvania, USA. He’s now a pineapple farmer.

The man who greets me is in blue gumboots and dons a sombrero to keep cool from the scorching sun. He says the farm, Koranco, where he grew up, stayed with him in all his travels abroad. Koranco farm grows pineapple for export to markets including Germany. Emmanuel’s mantra is quality, which is important for small-scale or subsistence farmers.

“If you are small and you don’t have funding, don’t try to do anything too big. It’s all about being able to manage and produce quality because, if you produce quality, it sells itself,” he tells me.

I get a chance to learn about the painstaking process from planting the sucker (seedling) to the final product and packaging. Emmanuel is hands-on, and his knowledge of the types of soil and requirements for a proper product are impressive. He also shows me how he prepares the land by driving a huge tractor to create rows for planting.

As we are filming on his farm, we get company – Emmanuel’s parents drive in, and I can clearly see where he gets his inspiration from. His father is quite enterprising, so I ask him whether he worried about his son’s decision, and he says he’s happy because being a farmer himself, he’s pleased that someone will follow in his footsteps. He adds that what he likes most is the fact that Emmanuel brings with him his experience in accountancy, which plays a key role in agriculture.

So how much competition is there in Ghana among pineapple farmers? “Very little,” Emmanuel tells me, and the reason is because they did their homework well and the kind of pineapple they grow only has a huge market abroad.

Not surprisingly, the common challenge for these two young farmers is securing funding for equipment and widening the market for their products. Admittedly, there are farmers’ organisations in various countries across Africa that give smallholder farmers market access and bargaining power for their produce. But this isn’t quite enough and more needs to be done.

According to Professor Calestous Juma of Harvard University, the focus should be on the full value chain from farm to fork, not just production. However, only the countries that invest in rural infrastructure, train farmers and provide incentives for agribusiness development will eventually succeed in this. That said, Professor Juma believes, “The best way to attract young people into farming is to define it as agribusiness.”

Innovation to tackle malnutrition
Agribusiness is exactly what one young man in Kenya is trying to do. I met 28-year-old entrepreneur, Claudius Kurtna, who processes fish into high protein, high energy biscuits. The softly spoken man came up with the first value-added product of its kind in the fish products space. The motivation behind this, he told me, was nutrition for children in remote places, those coming from poor backgrounds, as well as refugees. Most of these people live in places where fish cannot be transported to, or found in its natural state. Claudius decided to come up with a product that can be delivered anywhere, has a longer shelf life and maintains the same nutritional quality as fish would have in its natural form. The product has been certified by the Kenya Bureau of Standards, a national certification authority. Claudius told me that the product has been well received with orders from schools, and interest from NGOs. So what is his biggest challenge?

“We need highly mechanised equipment,” he told me. “This industry is not a manual industry.”

Claudius has fish ponds in Kisumu, in western Kenya, and is currently working with the Jomo Kenyatta University of Science and Technology on different ways of value addition.

Claudius introduced me to another fish farmer, Susan Kariuki, who has taken it upon herself to introduce fish ponds in Juja, in the suburbs of Nairobi.

In her words, “I chose this particular area because I felt there was need to introduce another source of protein. As you may be aware, fish is not exactly a staple in this particular area. But fish really doesn’t have to be eaten as it is. Whatever one can do with chicken or beef, one can do with fish. Fish burgers, fish rolls, biscuits and so on.”

Moving in the right direction
After meeting and speaking with these young farmers, I changed my perception of farming. Here were young people who, despite many doubts, embarked on a vocation that many see as risky. They identified with an industry so deeply rooted in the continent’s heritage and they weren’t afraid of physically working hard, getting dirty, or even looking uncool among their peers.

That is why I wanted to tell their story to our audiences across the globe, as well as young people from the continent. People will always need to eat, so agriculture – in whatever shape or form – will never go out of business. And it appears that these young men and women are moving in the right direction because, according to a World Bank report (2013), Africa’s farmers and agribusinesses could create a trillion-dollar food market by 2030 if they can expand their access to more capital, electricity and better technology. At the moment the world’s youngest populations are in Africa (2015 World Bank report), suggesting that there will be a spike in demand for produce.

Since the Farming is Cool series aired on BBC World News, I have had numerous conversations with young farmers and potential farmers from the continent. Most of those I spoke to practise subsistence farming and their main concern seems to be access to capital. Within these conversations have also been some interesting solutions to various challenges. For example, there was a suggestion for smallholder farmers to work together with their neighbours and decide on a particular crop or product to grow in order to sustain the demand, which would give them a stronger case for financial credit.

“Agriculture needs the same types of credit and risk-reducing incentives that are given to industrialists. Young people are not averse to farming. They are averse to risk. They are human,” said Professor Juma.

The challenge for Africa’s agribusinesses now is to entice and work with the continent’s burgeoning youth base to ensure consumer demand is met. Agriculture plays such a large and important role in the social and cultural fabric of Africa that I hope, in my role as a journalist, I can tell these farmers’ stories to the world and encourage other young people in Africa to follow the lead of these inspirational young farmers.