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Reflections on Agricultural Innovation in Africa: its Scalability and Youths

in Forest as in Life - You'll always find your way through...The concept of agricultural innovation has been the most intriguing and interesting subjects in Africa for several reasons. Firstly, most African countries still grapple with acute poverty and food insecurity. Yet, Africa has the best resources for agriculture i.e. good land for agricultural production and hard working people. Secondly, Africa has a burgeoning young population which is expected to be innovative and daring in the agricultural sector.

Paradoxically, there is a hype that young people are not fully engaged in agriculture which from my random interviews with older members in the rural communities is true particularly in the production part of the value chain.

From this perplexity, there are three questions I ask myself and try to offer responses based on the experience I had at the International Workshop on Agricultural Innovation Systems in Africa (AISA) in Nairobi from 29th-31st May 2013.The questions are;

  • Are smallholder farmers any innovative to end their poverty and food insecurity challenges?
  • Can we really take any innovation occurring within a specific context to scale? How can we do this?
  • If indeed agriculture is a lucrative business, why can’t the unemployed youth take it up and be innovative in it?

Are smallholder farmers any innovative?

At the AISA workshop I had a chance to attend the East African Farmer Innovation Fair showcasing interesting innovations that farmers have developed on their own. The interesting aspect of all the innovations is that none had come from huge investments in money. The innovations were simple and unique. I took time to talk to most innovative farmers from Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda with the aid of my rusty Kiswahili.

It was intriguing to note that the farmer innovators had keenly used the challenges they faced, the opportunities they saw and their own experiences to create wonderful products.

In addition, they were more willing to share their innovations at the expense of their intellectual property rights. As agricultural researchers and practitioners, we have more things to learn from these smallholder farmers so that we undertake research that is relevant and easily adaptable by smallholder farmers. It was encouraging also that the best farmer innovator was actually a Kenyan young man who links farmers using his ICT skills.

Can we scale up any innovation occurring within a specific context?

For the second question, I tried to answer it in my poster presentation made at the workshop titled “Broad vs. Specific Agricultural Recommendations: Implications for Research, Policy and Farmer Innovation”. You can read the abstract of my presentation.

We can be able to take innovation at scale only if we understand the interactions between the context in which the innovation occurs and the innovation itself.

Apparently, Africa is flooded with the so called “pilot projects” that end up at pilot stage or if attempts are made to be up-scaled lead to many so called “up-scaling” projects that end up to be total failures.

In addition, there is little recognition of farmers’ ability to innovate and learning from the smallholder farmers themselves who are key for adaptation of any of the innovations. The fancy “participatory approaches” or “innovation platforms” and so on have been used not as catalysts for innovation but rather marketing buzzwords for getting more money.

While enhancing adoption of superior technologies from other regions is necessary, a broad attempt to recommend such technologies to smallholder farmers is actually the “killer pill” to farmer innovation as it reduces their time for adaptation thereby having no creative adaptation at all.

If agriculture is a lucrative business, why can’t the unemployed youth take it up?

On the third question, I had an interesting discussion with workshop participants. This was organized as an “open space” with an open space topic “Youths in Agricultural Research for Development and Innovation Systems in Africa”. Though the open space was occupied by senior citizens (as the workshop was full of older researchers anyway ),  it was however one of the most enriching discussions I have ever had on the subject as core issues affecting the African youths were highlighted and debated upon. Some of the challenges for the youths that were noted include:

  • Poor policies and implementation: it was noted that the agricultural policies and norms are not conducive for youth engagement. Some of the controversial areas include land and marketing;
  • Poor perception of the agricultural field as it is not recognized as a noble job for society.
  • Lack of access to information especially for rural youth;
  • Lack of practical and relevant training particularly in the universities. Even the attachments that are normally part of the university education are rather ineffective as they are short;
  • Lack of capital for investment as conditions for accessing it are rather limiting; and
  • Succession plans in national agricultural research systems are still lacking with most of the NARS being coined as aging institutes.

Some of the proposed possible solutions from the group included:

  • Governments and all stakeholders should implement policies that make agriculture profitable first and then the youths will definitely move in;
  • Education in agricultural training institutions should be on the practical aspects of the field. It was recognized that while this was the case in the past, the increasing numbers of students make it difficult to offer practical training in agricultural universities. One of the solutions to this is engaging the private sector, NGOs and government personnel in offering practical courses in house. Innovative farmers can also be engaged to offer practical training to students not as one day off visits but rather long term mutual dealings with them;
  • Enhance the development of youth agricultural associations to encourage agro-entrepreneurship;
  • Creatively use social media to link rural young farmers to lucrative markets; and
  • The NARS should make a deliberate move to employ educated young people to understudy most of the aging agricultural researchers and take up the vacant posts.

Innovation without the Youth?

As usual, reflections just as any philosophical pursuits do not end with more answers but rather more questions than you started with. I will not attempt to flood them up here but rather ask myself, are these suggestions any new? What can we really do and how?

In conclusion, relevant agricultural innovations are required for Africa and they have to be taken to scale both spatially, sustainably (temporal sense), demographically and technically. I wonder how that is possible without the multitudes of Africa’s young people.

Picture courtesy: Marina Cherbonnier - "In Forest as in Life, you'll always find your way, if you give it some thoughts"