Annually, Malawi produces thousands of fresh and energetic graduates from the Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources (Luanar) and Mwimba College of Agriculture in Kasungu District.
Ordinarily, these youthful professionals were supposed to utilise their skills and knowledge to spearhead the transformation of the agriculture sector for accelerated socio-economic development of the country.
Alas, the majority of them dumped their profession the day they graduated to pursue different careers, which are considered reputable and prestigious.
“Youths often have an image of agriculture that has to do with subsistence farming, which has a low reputation and mostly associated with old people,” says Kerita Panje-Msusa, a 26-year-old smallholder farmer from Mwangata Village in Traditional Authority (T/A) Mlomba in Machinga.
Panje-Msusa started farming in 2016 when she was only 22.
She says her parents, who are members of the National Smallholder Farmers’ Association of Malawi (Nasfam), inspired her to take agriculture as her career choice.
She admits though that taking agriculture as a career was not an easy choice should make considering her age.
“But I persevered and continued fighting hard. Today I am proud owner of a magnificent house at Nsanama Trading Centre. I also have motorcycles and cars, which I hire out to earn additional income,” she says.
Making agriculture profitable requires that the costs of farming and doing business be reduced while at the same time productivity increases.
Foregoing engaging youth in agriculture and the potential for transformation this could bring because of the complexities of modernising agriculture would be a huge opportunity lost.
But low profitability, poor security of land tenure and high risks continue to push the youth to urban areas to seek jobs, a migration that could see Malawi with a shortage of farmers in the future.
Given that agriculture is one of the continent’s biggest economic sectors, generating broad economic development and providing much of the population with food, this poses a serious threat to the future of farming and to meeting the demands of a rapidly growing urban population.
Growing youth unemployment, ageing farmers and declining crop yields under traditional farming systems mean engaging youth in agriculture should be a priority.
However, for Malawi to achieve this dream, the government needs to incentivize agriculture to attract young graduates to the sector.
Lilongwe-based agribusiness entrepreneur Clara Kamlomo says the government and its stakeholders must strive to address barriers that tend to discourage the youth from participating in the sector.
Kamlomo cites poor prices for agricultural produce, lack of access to capital and land are some the reasons that push young people out of the sector.
She says to make agriculture more viable for the younger age group, the government must provide funding since most financial institutions consider youths, usually with little collateral, too risky.
“The government and development partners should set up funding programs for youths to go into agriculture. These programmes can be in the form of small loans given through financial institutions,” she says.
Kamlomo further challenges the government to mechanize the industry, stressing that traditional means of farming are outdated and not appealing to the youth.
Panje-Msusa concurs with Kamlomo, adding that national policies on farming and food security also need to identify and address issues facing young people.
“Youth need to become part of policy discussions at the local and national levels, whether as part of local development meetings, advisory groups or on boards or committees,” Panje-Msusa emphasizes.
Nasfam Chief Executive Officer Betty Chinyamunyamu says the rise of social media and its attraction among young people with access to the appropriate technologies could be an opportunity for Malawi to promote youth in agriculture.
Chinyamunyamu states that the youth are already interested in agriculture, but they are engaging differently, and current systems are not meeting their needs.
She says, for instance, that most agricultural support services were built on assumptions of an older demographic of farmers, and they have not adjusted to adequately meet the needs and priorities of Malawi’s growing crop of young digital farmers.
Chinyamunyamu stresses that greater awareness of the benefits of agriculture, as a career needs to be built amongst young people, in particular opportunities for greater market engagement, innovation and farming as a business.
“Mobile phone use is growing rapidly and people are now much more connected to sources of information and each other. Utilising these channels to promote agriculture and educate young people could go a long way in engaging new groups of people into the sector,” she says.
Chinyamunyamu says the media, information and communication technology (ICT) and social media can all be used to help better the image of agriculture across a broad audience and allow for sharing of information and experiences between young people and young farmers.
ICT can also be used as a tool to help young people spread knowledge, build networks, and find employment.
The latest report by the World Bank indicates that with Africa’s high percentage of the youth population, unemployment will become the pressing need for the continent.
The bank says in Africa, youths account for 60 percent of the jobless.
“To help solve this employment issue, we can look to agriculture and agribusiness. Agribusiness involves the business activities surrounding agriculture, which include processing, packaging, transportation, marketing, distribution, and financial services could create jobs for young people, especially those in rural areas,” reads the report in part.
Minister of Agriculture Lobin Lowe says agriculture remains a key driver of economic development of Malawi.
Yet, the country’s full agricultural potential remains untapped.
Lowe says time has come for Malawians to look at agriculture beyond the lens of subsistence farming.
He says there are many micro-enterprises within agriculture that youths can engage such as in processing and adding value to harvests.
“Agribusiness offers many opportunities for youths to find gainful employment along the value chain. That is why this government is working hard to empower the smallholders in rural areas with the latest and relevant skills with which to improve productivity, optimize inputs and maximize resource use,” he explains.