Helping Africa’s Youth Find Opportunity in a Changing Climate

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs

May 6, 2016

Growing up in a rural farm in the Kenyan Coast, I would run barefoot to the riverbank to watch my green cabbage grow. Back then, the rains were predictable, the heat was mild, and the soil was healthy. With each day, I grew more excited about farming and agriculture. I looked forward to a future where I would inherit my father’s farm and continue farming. My peers, too, were excited.

Today, the reality is different. My peers and I will inherit a world where climate change is real, and its impacts are devastating, especially to African agriculture. Although the youth have not contributed to global warming emissions on the planet, they are likely going to suffer the most from the consequences of a changing climate including droughts, desertification, and population displacement.

Climate change is also spurring rural-urban migration. In Bangladesh, for example, nearly 500,000 people have moved to cities due to floods brought about by the changing climate. Africa is also experiencing a substantial increase in the numbers of people migrating to the cities due to climate change. In Nigeria, where 70 percent of the population relies on agriculture, 1,350 square miles of land are being lost to desert each year. Such changes threaten rural life, and are occurring in other African countries as well.

At the same time, by 2035, approximately 350 million young people across Sub-Saharan Africa will be entering the labor force, of whom at most 25 percent are expected to find wage jobs. For the other 75 percent, farming and agripreneurship may be among their best options.

Faced with the challenge of a changing climate, rising urbanization, and few economic options, should the youth just watch as the planet perils? I think not. Instead, youth can turn on an optimistic lens to uncover unique opportunities as they carve out a new future for Africa. Chief among these is finding innovative ways to feed the rising urban population — including urban farming.

Youth-led urban farms can help satisfy cities’ demands for local, fresh, organic vegetables, and strengthen nutrition and food security. They can lead to greater resilience of cities, serving as a meaningful source of employment for the surging youth population.

To harness the opportunities presented by urban farming, governments, non-governmental organizations, public and private institutions need to move quickly.

First, governments must set up pieces of land, near or in urban areas that can be accessed, specifically by youth. As of today, urban land values in many African cities are skyrocketing, and most youth cannot afford to acquire land for urban farming. African governments need to put in place policies and programs that open access to land for urban farming. This is already happening in cities like Kigali, Rwanda, which has set aside 15,000 hectares of land to be used for urban agriculture, and in Lagos, Nigeria, where 4,400 hectares were set aside.

Secondly, young people who venture into urban farming should have access to capital. Innovative financing models are needed for youth-operated urban farms, and governments must lead in their provision. In Kenya for example, an existing government-initiated youth fund should have funds earmarked for urban farming.

Thirdly, youth farmers need access to agricultural training and extension services so they can benefit from new technologies, agricultural research breakthroughs, and best practices in urban farming. Governments could task universities, many of which are located in cities, with this responsibility. NGOS such as One Acre Fund and private businesses like Amiran Kenya, could also provide extension services needed for urban youth farmers to thrive. Alternatively, young farmers could tap into digital platforms like Mkulima Young to learn about emerging best practices among their peers.

Finally, aspiring urban farmers need role models of urban farming and youth leadership in African cities. One example is Harriet Nakabaale, in Kampala, Uganda. She works with young farmers through Camp Green, a three-in-one operation that combines home, farm and business vocational school.

South Africa has witnessed the proliferation of many youth-led urban farms. And in Kibera, Kenya, one of Africa’s largest slums, youth have set up an organic farm. They produce food for themselves and the community, and generate income from food sales and organic farming consultancies. Today, the farm grows an abundance of healthy vegetables, including kales, cabbage, onions, okra, and spinach, and employs 35 youths.

Of course, urban farming alone cannot feed Africa’s growing cities, nor will it entirely shield African agriculture from the harsh consequences of climate change. Investments in rural farms and infrastructure remain indispensible to a food secure future in Africa. But urban farming provides one promising avenue to employ urban youth and feed our cities.

Helping the youth thrive in the face of a changing climate, to make their way in urban environments, and to contribute to Africa’s food security will require investment, innovation, and collaboration. Now is the time for governments to support and recognize that urban farming can contribute to urban food supply and urban livelihoods.

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Originally published on The Chicago Council on Global Affairs

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