Making agriculture fashionable again: Young entrepreneurs are upgrading the image of African farming

Dieudonne Twahirwa, 30, who runs Gashora Farm, examines chilli plants at his farm in Bugesera District in eastern Rwanda on August 23, 2018. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Thin Lei Win

In a long-sleeved shirt and jeans, expertly navigating eastern Rwanda’s bumpy back roads in a white four-wheel drive, Dieudonne Twahirwa looks nothing like the stereotypical African farmer.

The 30-year-old owner of Gashora Farm knows what a difference that makes.

“You need more role models,” he said, standing among knee-high rows of chilli plants. “If you have young farmers, they have land and they drive to the farm, (others) think, ‘Why can’t I do that?'”

Twahirwa, a university graduate, bought a friend’s tomato farm six years ago for US$150. He made $1,500 back in two months.

“You have to link (farming) with entrepreneurship and real numbers,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Many young Africans are abandoning rural areas, choosing not to toil in the fields – a job made tougher by climate change. But Twahirwa is one of a growing band of successful farmers working to jazz up agriculture’s image on the continent. Some 1,000 farmers now produce chillies for him. He is starting a fourth farm of his own, and exports fresh and dried chillies and oil to Britain, the United States, India and Kenya.

Africa has the world’s youngest population and 65% of its uncultivated arable land. Yet accessing land and loans are difficult. African agriculture productivity is also low with crop yields just 56% of the international average, according to the United Nations.

Agriculture is mainly associated with suffering and no young person wants to suffer,” said Tamara Kaunda, who has put her career as a doctor on hold to buck this trend.

She believes African agriculture needs a make-over to shed its old-fashioned image of backbreaking work with a hoe. “Show young people with tractors, green fields, nice irrigation systems, smartphones,” she said.

A relative of Zambia’s first president, the fast-talking 29-year-old runs Billionaire Farmer Agric Solutions, supplying vegetable seedlings across Zambia and in neighbouring countries.

Getting young people involved in agriculture, definitely does not mean they only have to work on a farm, said Nigerian Olawale Rotimi Opeyemi, 29, whose agribusiness company JR Farms Africa has projects in Nigeria, Ivory Coast and Rwanda.

For example, in coffee production the beans go from the farm to the washing station to be separated from the husk. “There are people in the coffee value chain who just build washing stations and lease them. You just have to find a place to plug in,” he said.

Modern methods to change the image

Stepping up the use of mechanised equipment and new technology is another key way to attract young people – and will also improve productivity, experts say.

Today, according to the Malabo Montpellier Panel – a group of international agriculture experts, 50% to 85% of farm work in Africa, such as ploughing and sowing, is done manually.

From servicing farm machinery to operating equipment for processing, packaging and distribution, mechanisation would “open up a lot of business opportunities for young people”, said Ousmane Badiane, the panel’s co-chair and Africa director at the International Food Policy Research Institute.

Modernising agriculture could also help turn it from seasonal to year-round work, said Rouffahi Koabo, director general of the Centre Incubateur des PME au Niger (CIPMEN), Niger’s first business incubator.

“People need jobs not for only three months but… revenue for the whole year,” he said.

Rwandan Felicien Mujyambere, 35, was ready to migrate from his remote northern village after his wife died and his family’s income dropped.

But in 2017, he received a chick hatchery from the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) under a project that provides rural youths with business opportunities.

Since then, he has used the profits from selling eggs and chicks to buy another hatching machine, as well as start a banana and maize farm and a bee-keeping business.

He now employs 10 people, and has almost tripled his monthly income.

Eric Hakizimana, meanwhile, dreamed of becoming a government official but after high school, a lack of jobs led him to sign up for the FAO project.

He received about 300 chickens, a coop and a hatchery. Now, at 27, he has three times as many birds and is building a new coop.

Most young men in his village in eastern Rwanda move to the capital city, or even to Kenya and Uganda to look for work. “But now there are many who want to do this,” he said.

Leadership lacking to face challenges 

Even if the tide is turning, young farmers still struggle to get loans.

Interest rates are high and few banks are willing to take the risk of lending to them, said Ruramiso Mashumba, chair of the Zimbabwe Farmers’ Union youth wing.

Indeed, interest rates of 30% or more are not uncommon, farmers and business owners told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“Even if you have been successful… you still cannot get finance to grow,” said Mashumba, 33.

More flexible, innovative funding is needed, she added. Her 650-hectare farm, Mnandi Africa, produces certified maize seed, grows indigenous organic grains, and trains women farmers.

The International Fund for Agricultural Development is now trying to address this financing gap.

Meanwhile, climate pressures are adding to farmers’ woes, with extended dry periods, erratic rainfall and floods leading to crop losses and declines in yields – problems scientists predict will worsen as the planet warms.

Yan Kwizera, a Rwandan tech entrepreneur, said more political leadership is needed at the top so that farmers do not feel they are facing these challenges alone.

“How many presidents do you know in Africa who own land and are cultivating?” he said. “They send their kids to learn investment banking, medicine, law, international development. Nobody’s doing agriculture.”

Thin Lei Win is a food security correspondent for Reuters, living in Rome. This article first appeared on the website of the Thomson Reuters Foundation.