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Zambia’s vibrant youth are crucial to developing a prosperous agricultural sector. This means shaking off outdated perceptions and providing young people with the right incentives.

“Planting seeds of motivation”

Of late, we have seen a number of influential leaders set forth the huge potential of the agriculture sector in a number of African countries. Potential to not only feed burgeoning populations but to also drive a thriving export market - and in doing so, ramp up the continent’s economic growth.

Zambian President, Edgar Chagwa Lungu foresees rising inflows of foreign finance from international agricultural investors in search of attractive returns. But the sector’s potential can only be unleashed if it can harness the strength and brains of Zambia’s fast-growing youth population.

The Sustainable Diets for All programme run by Hivos and IIED recently partnered with Dr Tamara Kaunda, co-founder of Billionaire Farmer Agric Solutions. Two years ago, Dr Kaunda took the surprising decision to leave her prestigious career as a young medical doctor to become a full-time farmer. The partnership with Dr Kaunda is through the youth food change lab group called the ‘Youths for Sustainable Foods’. Change Labs are ideally suited to addressing complex issues related to agriculture which encompass a myriad of actors, facets and policies.

Rooting out negative perceptions

Dr Kaunda was raised on her father’s farm in Zambia’s  Muchinga province. The business was successful; it provided her family with food and jobs, and paid for Kaunda’s education. Inspired by her own upbringing, Dr Kaunda was attracted to hands-on work that could bring in profit while also putting nutritious food on the table.

“If young people want money and employment, let them take up agriculture,” she told me.

But this means greater efforts to make agriculture more attractive to young people. Dr Kaunda is concerned that most adverts on TVs and Billboards reinforce the impression that agriculture is for old people - not the young.

“We need to change the outdated perception that agriculture is back-breaking, unprofitable work for an old, tired generation," she said.

Dr Kaunda recalls someone asking her, ‘As young and intelligent as you are, you’re going into farming?’ This is the kind of mind-set that Kaunda is determined to change.

Change means finding ways to overhaul perceptions that farming is for the old, the poor and the weatherworn. It’s about drawing attention to new innovations in farming – crop development software, computer modelling to develop disease-resistant varieties, digital soil mapping   ̶  that are all making farming smarter, slicker and more profitable. It’s about showing that farming is attracting educated, entrepreneurial young people who see a financially rewarding future in farming: it’s about making agriculture sexy.

Dr Kaunda is confident that there is money to be made in agriculture. Though she is careful to point out that the paybacks don’t come without hard work, “There is plenty of profit in agriculture, but getting past the initial investment stage requires commitment and perseverance. You need to be in it for the long haul”.

Financial hurdles

Accessing adequate finance to get businesses off the ground can be a headache. Most financial service providers are hesitant to lend to youth due to their lack of collateral and financial literacy. In Zambia we often hear about banks investing heavily in agriculture – the question is; who is accessing these funds? Is the money reaching younger people? Promoting financial products catered to youth can all help remedy this issue.

Linking farmers to market

Reliable market access is also critical. Market failures can stem from any number of factors from un-navigable, unpaved roads that scarcely connect rural areas with relevant markets, to poor information on market prices. The growth of international supermarkets – demanding food in much larger quantities and with rigorous standards of supply chains is a further challenge.

Young people in Zambia need better market access to unlock the potential of new agricultural ventures. This means educating them on the importance of diverse production, training them in practising sustainable agriculture and providing them with reliable systems that make price and market information more readily available.

Supporting youth reaps rewards

The government of Zambia must seriously involve youth in agriculture and put youths at the centre of the countries plans to implement the nation’s agricultural policy.

There is a further need to show political support by tailoring agriculture budgets and national budgets so as to create an enabling environment for youths to contribute to diverse food production and consumption.

Private sector actors like banks can play a significant role around access to finance for the youth agripreneurs by re-aligning incentives for commercial banks and other financial institutions to reduce lending risks.

For youths to effectively participate in agriculture, increase their production and better their livelihoods, they need a variety of investments—and not just money. They need improved seeds, machinery, technology, knowledge and training. With increased support and new opportunities from government and the private sector, young people can contribute to sustainable diets for Zambia’s growing population.

William Chilufya is Regional Advocacy Officer, Hivos Southern Africa