The importance of agricultural studies and working in the sector could not have been made clearer than during the Youth Agritalks held recently on the University of Nairobi’s College of Agriculture’s Upper Kabete Campus.
Speaker after speaker pointed out the need to change the current negative thinking towards agriculture, especially among youth.
With the world population growing rapidly, while arable land and water resources are declining, it is important to find solutions to ensure sustainable food production, and security through sustainable environmental measures.
“Who will provide food for the 9.8 billion people on the planet by 2050, while ensuring that the environment is protected?”
In his presentation, Mr Anthony Nyutu, a senior education solutions specialist at Microsoft, pointed out that while one out of nine people are undernourished today, by 2050, some 70 per cent more food will be required to feed a population of 9 billion.
“We need more food and water. What are we doing about it? You are now here (at the university), how are you going to help us to achieve food security?” he asked.
“The average age of a farmer today is 60 years,” said Mr Steve Kombo, Managing director of Finetex and developer ofZalisha, a mobile-based application, which directly links farmers to buyers. “What is the future of our food production in the next 10 years or the plans to ensure sustainability? There will be a huge gap in food production. What are we going to do about it?”
“As youth, we are energetic, open-minded and risk-takers. We have to come up with innovative solutions and use technology for maximum productivity and to avoid post-harvest losses,” he added.
Mr Joseph Kamau, the Kiambu CEC member for Agriculture, said that in the next 10 years, his and other counties might find themselves without farmers or staff because 60 per cent of the current farmers and county staff are over 50 years old.
The speakers were addressing about 400 participants, most of them youth from the university, during the Youth Agritalks convened by Smart Farmer Africa, in partnership with the University of Nairobi’s College of Agriculture and the Nairobi University Agriculture Students Association (Nuasa).
The students had reached out to Smart Farmer through Nuasa chairman Linus Odhiambo.
“Most of us feel sidelined and demotivated because of the negative perception towards agriculture. We need motivation and to see the opportunities in the sector,” Mr Odhiambo had said.
The college principal, Prof Rose Nyikal, said: “We have many universities and colleges offering agriculture and related courses, yet we still talk about food insecurity.”
She told about one of her students who had joined the faculty because it was his mother choice and “so he was doing it for her”.
In another instance, one of her friends changed her course to education because her father told her that she could not study ‘digging’.
Prof Nyikal said: “Agriculture is not just digging.”
Prof George Cheminingw’a, the Dean, Faculty of Agriculture, said: “I normally face challenges during admission of new students. They often want to change to courses such as engineering and nursing.”
Nuasa chairman Odhiambo urged his colleagues to change their attitude towards the sector: “This is not a field for people who have lost hope; it is for those seeing the future,” he said.
Mr Gilad Milo, formerly a senior executive at Amiran Kenya, and now an award-winning artiste and CEO of Harmony Limited, a company that focuses on positioning brand’s through strategic and creative use of PR among others, entertained the audience and challenged the students to recognise their unique position, which presents an opportunity for them to lead an agricultural revolution.
“You underestimate your position in the world right now. We are in a blessed country. We have water, land, one of the best climates; the people, the technology, and the willingness. You should be thinking about how to take advantage of these assets at your disposal,” he said.
“We live in a generation where you can post a ridiculous message and become a personality overnight with a million followers. Online marketing, apps, and connectivity; none of these was available for your parents,” he said.
“Right now if you are growing mangoes, you can sell them in New York, just by using social media and the internet,” he added.
Mr Milo, a former Deputy Ambassador of Israel to Kenya, drew comparatives between the two countries to highlights the myriads of advantages the latter had over his country.
“Kenya is 26 times bigger than Israel, which is the size of Kitui County, and has a population of about 50 million compared to Israel’s eight million; yet, it is the 22nd biggest economy in the world and the largest supplier of horticulture to Europe,” he said. Only three per cent of Israelis are in agriculture, and they are the ones supplying Europe with horticulture.
“This tiny country, which lacks water, sells water to its neighbours. How? Through innovation,” the diplomat added.
According to him, Lake Victoria is three times the size of his country, and while it rains in Kenya consistently, a lot of water is lost instead of storing it for irrigation during dry seasons.
“And when the rains are over, the country faces drought and starvation. Maybe one of you will make use of this wasted water and earn some money from it,” he told the students.
“M-Pesa has shown that Kenya can create solutions that can change the world, including solutions in agribusiness. You (students) need to find solutions to the problems farmers are facing. Create start-ups and innovations from what is available. Kenya can lead the change in agribusiness,” he said.
“You can make money from agribusiness through ingenuity, innovation, and creativity, and that’s why you came here to study this course,” he told youth.
“Students across the world make revolutions. If you don’t, someone else will because the revolution of a youth-led sector has already begun.
The students were enlightened that the days of the jembe are already gone, and there is the fourth agricultural revolution, the digital age.
Mr John Muthengi, a data scientist at Microsoft said: “The future of agriculture is technology-driven, with precision farming coming out as the driver in a few short years. It is upon you to tap into these solutions, and come up with others.”
The jobs question
No jobs in the sector? You must be joking, Microsoft’s Mr Nyutu said.
“Everybody has to eat, yet we consider this course boring? This college produces over 1,000 graduates annually. Where are they? Where do they go,” he asked.
“I have goats, cows, and some poultry, but sadly, I have not been able to find a veterinary doctor in my area (Namanga). My workers are sometimes forced to send photos of the animals through Whatsapp to my cousin in Murang’a for diagnosis,” said Mr Nyutu.
He and his wife have been considering going back to college train as veterinarians.
“I am investing in farming so that it can give me returns when I retire. I want it to be my retirement plan. Sadly, some of you guys are here just for the certificate and not to serve us!”
There are many opportunities and institutions, which can give you jobs in this sector, said Ms Esther Muiruri, the associate director in charge of agribusiness at Equity Bank.
“But you must be aggressive enough to look for jobs. Sometimes when we advertise them, we get very little response. In the last three months, we have only managed to employ 50 people, yet we were looking for more,” the director says.
The limitations are not about opportunities, said Kiambu CEC Kamau, who had a similar experience to that of Equity Bank.
“We lack enough people to fill the positions,” he said, explaining that when he worked in the private sector, it took three advertisements before they could get the right people to employ.
The reason is because most students do not know where they can work after graduation.
Mr Eric Ogumo, of IFC/World Bank Group and the chairman, Society of Crop Agribusiness Advisory of Kenya, said: “I recently spoke to third-year students, 80 per cent of them did not know where they could work after graduation. It is important to know potential companies.
Ms Judy Maina of FAO said: “The opportunities are immense, but because the students and youth, in general, do not have information, the gap keeps growing.”
According to the Kiambu CEC, there are many opportunities in value addition. “You don’t have to own land to be a key player in agriculture,” he said. “Look at agriculture through the whole value chain starting from production, inputs, processing, transport, marketing, and consumption,” he urged.
Ms Mercy Limbua, a youthful food chain consultant, said that agriculture is a job like any other job.
“We cannot all go into the office to find jobs. Agriculture is all-inclusive. You can offer ICT solutions, finance, marketing, and all related kinds of solutions for the sector. Start now and in 10 years, you will be enjoying the fruits of your labour. Don’t wait until you are 65 when your energy is done,” she urged.
According to Mr Omry Karplus, Amiran Kenya, Seeds department manager, it is important to keep an open mind towards alternatives in the agriculture sector. “There are not enough places for everyone in Kenyan companies today,” he said. “But there are alternatives and you have to keep an open mind,” he told the students.
Mr Karplus, who has worked with farmers in the field for over five years, also said that there are many challenges facing the sector today including new diseases, climate change, and irregular seasons, but, despite these challenges, there are many good farmers and companies making money. “When working in the sector, it is important to have a good network so that you understand what is going on in the country. You need good access to continuous information, as there is no one thing that will grow your business,” he urged.
Ms Muiruri from Equity argued that agriculture should be looked at from the business perspective to reduce the risk and make it appealing so that it starts attracting money.
“When we talk about it as food security and creating employment, we may not see where the money is,” she said.
“There are no different business principles for agriculture and other sectors. They are all the same. If you can import clothes and sell them, why not sell cabbages the same way?”
Students, Ms Muiruri advised, should tart positioning themselves now. “Do small things; maybe you have a dairy cow or something. Show commitment and have an entrepreneur’s mindset.
“Manage your parents’ farm or for people around you to give you experience, and when you are done with schooling, you can go out and become an employer.”
Mr Silvano Assanga, from RTI, advised the students that they do not have to start big or with machinery.
“Start with things like tomatoes, chickens, and Sukuma wiki (kales),” he said giving an example of a youth group in West Pokot that had become millionaires from selling goat meat and are the main suppliers in Chebararia Division in the county.