From farm to fork, the global health crisis triggered by Covid-19 is a serious threat to our food systems. Notwithstanding, new opportunities are emerging for young people to participate more actively in agricultural value chains. For the youngest continent, projected to have 50% of the population aged under 25 years by 2050, seizing this opportunity is key to ensuring that its young people have economic opportunities backed by resources, investment, and an enabling environment.
In the following interview, Samson Ogbole, a farmer and agribusiness expert, reflects on how young people can identify opportunities in the agribusiness sector both during and post Covid-19.
As the founder of Soilless Farm Lab, can you briefly tell us about this enterprise and its activities?
Soilless Farm Lab is the smart way to farm. Today, we are aware that the basic challenge of agriculture is on how to maximize food production without harming the environment, while also reducing post-harvest losses. As a leading technology enabler for agriculture, we are addressing these challenges by developing farming tools and implementing smart and sustainable agricultural practices. We train and establish soilless farms as a means to create enablers of agricultural production such as tissue culture for clean seeds, soilless farming for food production all year round, artificial intelligence (AI) for ease of operations, and blockchain for tracking and increasing transparency for food production.
Are there any impacts of Covid-19 on your agribusiness ventures?
My company has three strategic focus areas, namely: farm establishment, and consultancy; research for development; and training and capacity building. Since the pandemic started in Nigeria, the former two areas have been greatly affected, especially with the lockdown. We produce and supply mainly to structured markets, restaurants, and hotels, but due to the lockdown and movement restrictions, we had to stop production.
In the area of research, we have slowed down our operations as we are unable to import new reagents for biochemical analysis. However, we have been able to increase our margins from training and capacity development programs.
Will Covid-19 encourage or discourage young people from venturing into agriculture?
Covid-19 is primarily a health crisis, and not necessarily a determining factor that can indicate or reduce interest in agriculture. Agriculture is handled by individuals, so the impact of the pandemic from individual perspectives such as financial, emotional, and mental health will determine what people will do next.
However, lots of stakeholders are highlighting the gap, and the need for agriculture at this time. There are also farmers who are counting their losses and struggles in the same period.
Irrespective of the situation, it is the personal drive of individuals that will lead to a decision, but what is constant is, people will continuously need food to survive. The source of the food, either homegrown or imported, is totally dependent on individuals, and core values that guarantee survival, sustainability, and wealth creation.
Currently, digital tools are the next big thing in Africa. How can digital technology accelerate youth participation in agriculture?
Today, every economic sector has adopted technology. This is the difference between the struggles of the past and the affluence in these sectors, and thus, agriculture must follow the same path.
To reflect on the case study of Nigeria, to the best of my knowledge, there was never a time in our history when the government actively campaigned for people to pick up interest in sports, entertainment, oil & gas, and banking. The younger generation were willing to pay the price to be a part of these aforementioned sectors because it ensured sustenance (breathe, bread and bed).
Young people see these industries as dignified sectors that guaranteed wealth and a life of comfort. There was a clear career path, a road map that made the non-workings of the country irrelevant in choosing to camp in those sectors.
I am convinced that digitization and technologies will play a key role in giving todays youth that same option, so they see agriculture beyond hoes, cutlasses, and a poverty multiplying industry.
Are there agribusiness prospects to capture the imagination and innovation of young people and bring them on board?
Yes, there are existing agribusiness prospects.
The recent development in the area of machine learning and AI, coupled with its usefulness in agribusiness, means there is a whole lot that can be done. Also, across the value chain, there are enormous opportunities for young people.
For instance, the use of nanotechnology, blockchain, robots, AI in agriculture are some areas that will be facilitated to younger generations. Today, the world has advanced with the development of 3D for making food, and AI plates to help calculate calories.
Also, there are remote-controlled farms as well as sensors that allow communication between the farm and the farmer. These innovations and technologies in agriculture present a spectrum of opportunities that allow young people to select a niche in terms of interest, passion, skills (or tool reskilling to fit opportunity).
African agriculture offers enormous potential and opportunities along the chains of farm to fork, but young people must be ready to innovate and provide sustainable solutions to address the existing agricultural challenges.