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Strive Masiyiwa: If I started again I’d do agriculture, says telecoms tycoon

Strive Masiyiwa

Strive Masiyiwa

Zimbabwean tycoon Strive Masiyiwa made his money in the mobile telecoms business, but if he were to start all over again, he would bet on agriculture.

Speaking at the opening of this year’s African Green Revolution Forum (AGRF) in Zambia’s capital Lusaka, Masiyiwa made a case for the opportunities in the agriculture industry.

The Zimbabwean billionaire is chairman of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), an organisation set up in 2006 to support smallholder farmers with the goal of reducing poverty and hunger.

Masiyiwa noted Africa’s food market would be worth US$1tr in just 15 years, citing a 2013 report by the World Bank.

According to a report launched at the forum, Africa currently spends more than $60bn on food imports each year thereby benefiting producers outside the continent.

“Oh I wish I was starting again. I wouldn’t do telephones. I would go into agriculture,” he said.

Masiyiwa founded Econet, a diversified telecommunications company with operations and investments in Africa, Europe, South America and Asia. His other business interests include financial services, insurance, renewable energy, bottling for Coca-Cola and hospitality ventures – all of which have made him one of the most wealthy and respected business people in Africa.

“Twenty years ago the idea that people could have their own [mobile] phone was almost as ludicrous as the idea that Africa will feed the world. But 20 years from now, this continent will feed the world,” predicts Masiyiwa.

A decade ago, Masiyiwa noted, it was almost impossible to talk about agriculture in Africa beyond simply food security. Millions of people across the continent were facing hunger on a daily basis, even starvation.

“When you mentioned the words food and agriculture, often we spoke about hunger. I cannot say to you the hunger has gone away – but what I can say to you today is that we are beginning to address this issue. We are beginning to move agriculture forward.”

“The green revolution of Africa… has indeed started.”

Involving the youth

Masiyiwa urged stakeholders to connect the bulging youth population with the continent’s vast agricultural resources.

This year’s Africa Agriculture Status Report: Youth in Agriculture in Sub-Saharan Africa, launched at the forum, notes young people can be the engine behind the development of new agricultural enterprises in farming research, processing, packaging, and retailing of food. However, it warns most of Africa’s under-25 population are pessimistic about farming due to a lack of land, credit, quality farm inputs and machinery.

“Africa has the largest, most vibrant group of young people – yet we have a need to create jobs even today for over 250 million [of them]. Yet we have over 60% of the world’s unutilised arable land. There must be a way to connect these two dots,” said Masiyiwa.

“African youth have the energy of the world. We have to equip them with the right skill… with the tools… with the markets. They are smart, and they are not just going to go out and work the land for nothing – as we did in yesteryears.”

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  • Sometimes good decisions come late, and even you’ve tried others.

  • Francis Kanyongo

    Investment in Agricultural Production and Agricultural Management is key in Africa. The market size has been determined. There is a need to apply appropriate technology to boost output. The training in Agricultural Institutions has to migrate to raising Entrepreneurs in the sector.

  • Robinson M. Nkonde

    Strive has a very valid point. Agriculture in most parts of sub Sahara Africa is an option for tired, retirees leaving active service in Government in their late 50’s probably afflicted with chronicle diseases that come with old age such as Diabetes and High Blood Pressure. Even where arable land has been grabbed from whites in Zimbabwe, we hear of Politicians and retired Army and Air-force Generals in their late 50’s and older, taking over these once-upon-a- time very productive farms, which inevitably end up being rapidly run down, thanks to the owners’ lack of expertise, and, of course energy. Most Governments in Africa have sufficiently invested in training their youth in agricultural skills at tertiary level. The sector is however, faced with three major challenges, these being (i) Unattractive rural areas: Farming is by and large a rural industry, though urban areas offer the largest market for produce. However, the youth graduating from colleges and universities shun the rural areas where arable land is affordable and easily accessible, because such areas lack suitable social amenities commensurate with the status of these youths, most of whom are about to start families. These young people want good pre-school facilities for their toddlers, sports cafes to relax and follow international football, up market hair salons & spas for their wives etc, etc (ii) Lack of affordable financing: Farming, as an industry is capital intensive and can be quite slow at bringing returns. Commercial money is quite expensive in Africa generally, and out of reach especially for a young entrepreneur looking for start up capital without collateral. (iii) Middlemen, cartels: Regardless of whether value has been added to the farmer’s primary produce or not, farmers are constantly discouraged by cartels that stand between them and the consumer. These middlemen usually manipulate prices, make money trading between the farmer and the consumer, and sometimes makes more money than the farmer who has had to absorb all production overheads. This is usually laced with corruption and it calls for farmers to develop a thick skin to withstand this blatant exploitation. It can be very frustrating for youngsters starting up in the industry, most of whom opt for a regular job on already established commercial farms.
    These are challenges African Governments should strive to address if they are to attract the youth to the industry.

    • Augustus Karube

      Great argument. All three points are realistic and relevant, but we need to think and plan far ahead, in dealing with and addressing these issues, to convince our youth, beyond any reasonable doubt that, indeed there is plenty of money to be made in agriculture, there is good and beautiful life to be lived and had on rural farms and that we can organize rural farming communities, to directly access available markets, for direct sales at better profit margins, by effectively cutting out the middleman.

      Besides, life in rural communities is set to change and change dramatically for the better, with the advent of new technologies in new and renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind power, coming aboard, with prices falling dramatically. Financial options are increasing and becoming readily available and competitively affordable, to finance agribusinesses.

      African governments need to play their part, in providing important and conducive policy framework, allowing massive investments in rural electrification, to provide clean, affordable, reliable, dependable and sustainable electric power, off grid or mini grid or feed in on grid, to power rural community agribusinesses, cottage industry light manufacturing and processing agricultural produce, besides providing power to several other rural facilities and amenities, such as schools, hospitals and clinics, trading centres, irrigation systems and green houses, community resource centres, to mention a few.

      Civil society groups and local and international NGO’s working with and in rural communities, need to shift focus to social investments, away from traditional forms of work they have been carrying for many years, with limited successes. We must strive to find new and better ways of doing things differently, to encourage investments in agribusinesses, for both profitability and food security, all of which are doable and achievable. We must press central and local governments, to invest in rural electrification, by catching the ever growing solar and wind power initiatives, for integrated rural community development. It is the way forward, to make rural agriculture attractive, progressive and prosperous, to ensure sustained profitability and food security.

      Such a move would be good for the natural environment and our carbon footprint. It would also serve to mitigate the effects of climate change and combat adverse weather conditions and their destructive and disruptive impact on the environment, economic activities, livelihoods and social well being, especially the rural communities, who are the bulk of agricultural production, which feeds bulging populations, in African cities and growing towns.

      We want our governments to take action now, to provide solar and wind power, to electrify rural communities, with a renewed sense of commitment and urgency, instead of wasting several years and millions of scarce financial resources, poured down stream, to construct and develop some hydro dams, which are costly both financially and environmentally, with limited social benefits, as the powers generated, if at all, have never been reliable and dependable, over the years.

  • Africa has 60% of the arable land on earth and will be the breadbasket of the world in the future. This guy is right on target.

    • It may be so on statistics but well, providing for the people in the most fundamental sense is more important.

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