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Unleashing youth power through skills development

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VALETA —We would create employers

He is only 25 and already running his dream farm of button mushroom in a lucrative market that boasts top hospitality giants – Ryalls Hotel and Food Lovers as potential clients.

Although relatively new in this trade, Davis Bango-Chirwa makes on average K50,000 ($70) in a day’s sale and is set for an almost 300 percent profit from his initial investment of K1,500,000.00 in just three months.

“This is what I want to be doing for the rest of my life,” says the young entrepreneur who had to save money from his current salary as data officer in the health sector for capital.

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An agri-business graduate from Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources (Luanar), Bango-Chirwa believes agriculture will remain Malawi’s largest employer into the far future but bemoans that the sector is not being put to its full potential especially among the country’s youth who still consider it a vocation for rural people with no academic qualifications.

“Society needs role models to deal with the twisted mindset and unleash the youth into innovative self-employment,” says Bango- Chirwa.

He had to chase his dream the hard way; almost single-handedly in a sector devoid of role models to inspire and guide young dreamers.

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Today, he is the boy to call on and a model for the youth interested in agri-business. All this is thanks to the USAid-funded Strengthening Higher Education Access in Malawi Activity (Sheama) which identified him in February as a young model to inspire and mentor his peers.

Sheama had noted that youths in agriculture needed more role modelling than youths in other sectors of the economy.

This is so because of the negative attitude the youth have towards the sector which is so often associated with the old and less educated.

It was on this basis that when Sheama conducted a two-week course in mushroom production early this year, Bango-Chirwa was engaged. He told his awe-inspiring story of how he himself started from zero knowledge about mushroom production and zero capital for investment to becoming an entrepreneur in the industry.

“No one must cheat you that there is no money in farming, I decided to venture into agriculture because I saw farmers with better income than their own extension officers who are also graduates,” he said.

Many young participants to the mushroom course resolved to become job creators with people such as 24-year-old Nelson Lulanga from Salima district immediately launching his oyster mushroom production farm.

Even after the training, Bango- Chirwa has continued to share his knowledge and experience on mushroom production, through distance education-like facility in form of a dedicated social media group on mushroom.

“I don’t want them to experience what I went through. The mushroom sector is big enough for everyone,” says the young entrepreneur who is one of the very few button mushroom producers in Malawi.

He further believes there is need to bridge academics and the industry by making the agricultural curriculum more practical.

“Our colleges must shift from just creating graduates to raising entrepreneurs,” he says.

The Sheama project works in collaboration with University Partners to design and offer industry-tailored short courses. It also promotes the delivery of college lessons through Open, Distance and E-Learning (ODeL) as one way of dealing with lack of space at public tertiary institutions.

In all this, the project targets adolescent girls and young women, persons with disabilities, rural vulnerable groups and youths – persons who would otherwise have no access to higher education.

The Activity also provides scholarships to enable the vulnerable youths have access to higher education so they can become employable and innovators.

Bango-Chirwa passes as a good example. He is already helping four students from the Malawi Polytechnic to expose their technological prowess using his farm as an on-farm research platform.

The Polytechnic students include third-year Geological Engineering student – Fedson Mwadala; third year electrical engineer – Khumbo Malikebu; first year biomedical engineering student – Violet Mulonda; and fifth year Telecommunication Engineering student who is also team leader – Chikumbutso Walani.

The four have installed at the mushroom farm technology that enables Bango-Chirwa to check temperature, humidity, light intensity and moisture in the farm from his phone at any time from wherever he might be.

The four innovators, having seen Bango-Chirwa finally role out his dream agricultural enterprise, they have also decided to set up a Smart Farms company that would provide agricultural technological solutions at global level.

That, probably, sums up the need for youth role models and mentors in the agricultural sector to spur innovation.

Director for Open Distance Learning at Sheama, Joshua Valeta, cannot agree more.

“If we can have university curricula that speak to the needs of the industry, with more open university doors, and also have role models and mentors, we would not only increase skilled workforce but also create employers,” says Valeta.

“Arizona State University, the number one university on innovation, in the US, through the USAid supported Sheama programme, is championing exactly that to see the higher education landscape change in Malawi,” he adds.

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