April 14, 2015

Guest Commentary - A Call for African Food Entrepreneurship

By Salif Romano Niang, Cofounder, Malô
An African proverb says that “you cannot work for food when there is no food for work.” Farmers across the developing world are all too familiar with this sentiment. In my work supporting my family farm in the outskirts of Bamako, Mali, and my work with rice farmers in l’Office du Niger to produce affordable, culturally appropriate fortified rice, what continues to strike me as primordial in the fight for a world without hunger and micronutrient deficiencies is the need to redefine and revitalize what it means to be a farmer.
We define a farmer as a person who earns a living by cultivating land or raising animals but for far too many Africans and especially my fellow Millennials, being a farmer is also synonymous with poverty, illiteracy, and ultimately — failure. 
Many youth of the Facebook era see farming and, in particular, farming using the tools and resources their parents used, as their last option, even if city life is not all that great. And who can blame them? Parents often feel the same way and fight to ensure that their children don’t end up suffering in the fields like they did. And those who want to see their offspring take over the family plot often are powerless to stop them from heading to nearby cities, to artisanal gold mines or putting their lives in the hands of traffickers for the perilous journey to the paradise called Europe.
The cycle of poverty and hunger is further exacerbated when scarce resources are used to prioritize the education of boys at the expense of girls. In my travels across Mali, what strikes me is the demographic imbalance in many villages. Rural communities are essentially composed of babies, young mothers, and the elderly because too many able-bodied men are away. And when obstacles facing women in securing land rights which in turn affect their ability to secure credit in order to purchase inputs or hire labor persists, it further erodes the image of farming.

In 2013, The Economist stated that “if potential were edible, Africa would have the best-fed people on Earth.” Not only are several African countries, especially in the Sahel, not fulfilling their potential, they are one bad harvest away from a humanitarian catastrophe or a politico-security crisis. 
To achieve Africa’s food production potential, its youth and in particular those willing to learn and contribute to food production need role models and a business plan. They must see themselves not merely as farmers but as food entrepreneurs—risk takers determined to create a legacy, not just a living, by helping to feed the world. 

Yes, access to capital, inputs, land, water, markets, and a stable political and regulatory environment are all critical but the experience of starting a rice fortification company in Mali and helping to manage my family’s farm has taught me that the human element —the people who you work with and do business with — is vital.
To succeed, one needs to remain committed and focused on a mission, to have partners and teammates, a plan, and the belief that what you are doing is worthwhile and will be appreciated. As a result of experimenting and testing crops ranging from papayas to broccoli on our 4-hectare farm equipped with solar-powered drip fertigation technology, we are currently building a pilot center that will educate, incubate, and accelerate as many as 75 youth a year regardless of their level of education. 
The program consists of technical training such as the production of fruits, vegetables, cereals, poultry, dairy, and aquaculture but also stresses leadership, teamwork, and civic skills. If successful the center could become one of the models for creating a generation of qualified workers, managers, and owners of 21st century farms and agribusinesses.

Figuring out sustainable and modernized food production models that addresses education, employability, and nutritional security simultaneously is critical because according to the UN, over 325 million Africans are between the ages of 15 and 35. In 10 years, the number of 15 to 35 year olds is projected to exceed 420 million and its unclear where the jobs will come from. We surely can’t all be politicians, soccer players, lawyers, musicians, or customs officials so it is vital for young people to Do Agric

Another common African saying that “your food is supposed to be your medicine, and your medicine is supposed to be your food.” Food and investing in the smart production and distribution of it across the entire value chain using proven techniques, technologies, and best practices can and should be one of the key remedies for turning the problems of hunger and micronutrient deficiencies into a golden opportunity for the youth of today and tomorrow. 


The Global Food and Agriculture Program aims to inform the development of US policy on global agricultural development and food security by raising awareness and providing resources, information, and policy analysis to the US Administration, Congress, and interested experts and organizations.

The Global Food and Agriculture Program is housed within the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. The Council on Global Affairs convenes leading global voices and conducts independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

Support for the Global Food and Agriculture Program is generously provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.


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