February 20, 2018 | By

The Next Generation: The Fourth Revolution Breakthrough

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is pleased to launch a new blog series, “The Next Generation,” to explore the challenges and opportunities of agricultural systems in a world with unprecedented numbers of young people. We will publish one post each week addressing these issues, and our series will culminate with the release of a new Council report at the 2018 Global Food Security Symposium. Join the discussion using #GlobalAg, and tune in to the symposium live stream on March 21 and 22.

By Laura Glenn O'Carroll

Feeding the world of tomorrow is going to mean tapping into the ingenuity and technical creativity of tomorrow’s young people. With world populations on the rise, and youth populations in particular higher than ever before, there is great potential for a wellspring of innovation—if policymakers and the private sector can make the strategic investments needed to cultivate that capability, now. Unlike the previous three industrial revolutions—steam, electricity, and computers—the next industrial revolution, the digital revolution, stands to remake entire economies by transforming whole suites of industries at once.

Importantly, youth must be empowered to contribute to the necessary change and innovation themselves. Young people are not just passive recipients of aid, but instead should be recognized as one of the most creative forces for transformation. By expanding access and training, governments and private enterprise can allow the talent of future workers and leaders to blossom.

The Digital Revolution

Nearly 90 percent of youth live in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs), the same areas that have already shown inventive technological leap-frogging. There are already over half a billion mobile phone subscriptions in Africa, where people are using mobile tech to access financing, market data, and more via text. Young people are more likely to take to new technology platforms quickly, making a large youth population fertile ground for invention and entrepreneurship—provided their education, public health, and wellbeing are properly invested in. Internet and mobile connections can widen horizons for students, allowing for training and job opportunities to expand to areas once beyond external reach.

Mobile phone use continues to rise. Source: International Bank for Reconstruction and Development/ World Bank

Digital technology also offers the possibility of revolutionizing education, particularly for remote areas. For example, educators in Tanzania are utilizing mobile phones to request video content via SMS, which is then delivered through a 2.5G/3G mobile networks and displayed on a television in the classroom. In Indonesia, teachers in one particular program are using mobile phones to take short videos of their peers and together review and discuss pedagogical approaches.

Digital innovation also offers the chance to expand agricultural extension services globally—a vital link to education that underpinned the success of American famers for over a century. Developed in the early 20th century, extension services connected agricultural researchers at public universities with farmers in even the most rural American areas. By specifically reaching out to students in these communities, who were usually more receptive to new technologies than their parents, extension services were able to facilitate the movement of agricultural R&D to people out in the field. Youth across the world can be technology ambassadors for their relatives, spreading technology and skills throughout their community. Furthermore, young people are often highly inventive in adapting technologies developed in other countries to fit their lifestyles.

The digital revolution cannot take hold without support, however. The keystone for expansion is often access to reliable power, a fundamental infrastructural need. The digital revolution will have minimal impact if students and communities lack reliable electricity. Nearly 85 percent of people without electricity live in rural areas, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia—the same regions expected to have the largest increases in youth populations. Within the excitement of expanding digital infrastructure, policymakers must also be careful to not overlook the vital importance of physical infrastructure as well. Digital innovation captures attention, but roads bring goods to market.

Mechanization is Technology, Too

One of the most impactful technologies for smallholder farmers can be the tractor. Mechanization improves productivity, reduces hard physical labor, and makes farming a more attractive occupation for the next generation of famers. While over the last 40 years tractor use in Latin America and Asia has increased tenfold, the use of tractors in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) has remained flat. In fact, tractor concentration in SSA decreased, from two tractors per 1,000 hectares in 1980 to 1.3 by 2003.

Often, smallholder farmers cannot bring their surpluses to open markets, and must depend on lower local prices. Without access to storage and refrigeration, fresh produce is likely to spoil. In India alone, nearly $7 billion worth of fresh produce is lost each year due to a lack of refrigeration. Increasing smallholder farmers’ access to improved agricultural tools allows subsistence farmers to move into surpluses.

As up to 80 percent of all farm labor is supplied by women and girls, agricultural mechanization is a vital element of improving the lives of rural women. Despite their central role as farmers, women in LMICs still face immense challenges in accessing these vital technologies. According to the UN Food and Agricultural Organization, equalizing access to productive resources for male and female farmers “could increase agricultural output in developing countries by as much as 2.5 to 4 percent.”

Additionally, mechanization strengthens the rural economy by creating new employment opportunities, such as manufacturing, maintenance, and repair. Previous efforts to increase tractor use in Africa often failed because of a lack of investment in skills, credit, and spare parts—it is not enough to simply provide farmers with machines.

A food secure future will depend on tomorrow’s rural youth accessing the technology and infrastructure that their work depends on. With global populations estimated to reach 9.8 billion in 2050, the time for investments is now. Digital technology offers immense promise to bridge educational and geographic divides, but investors and policymakers must support the physical infrastructure needed for advancement to build.

Next week, this blog series will expand on the opportunity for US business to invest in global rural youth and highlight the promise of private-public partnerships.

Read our previous posts in The Next Generation series:

Youth Populations and the Demographic Dividend Window

Agricultural Development Holds the Key

Youth on the Move


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.


1,000 Days Blog, 1,000 Days

Africa Can End Poverty, World Bank

Agrilinks Blog

Bread Blog, Bread for the World

Can We Feed the World Blog, Agriculture for Impact

Concern Blogs, Concern Worldwide

Institute Insights, Bread for the World Institute

End Poverty in South Asia, World Bank

Global Development Blog, Center for Global Development

The Global Food Banking Network

Harvest 2050, Global Harvest Initiative

The Hunger and Undernutrition Blog, Humanitas Global Development

International Food Policy Research Institute News, IFPRI

International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center Blog, CIMMYT

ONE Blog, ONE Campaign

One Acre Fund Blog, One Acre Fund

Overseas Development Institute Blog, Overseas Development Institute

Oxfam America Blog, Oxfam America

Preventing Postharvest Loss, ADM Institute

Sense & Sustainability Blog, Sense & Sustainability

WFP USA Blog, World Food Program USA


| By Roger Thurow

Our New Gordian Knot

Fifty years ago Dr. Norman Borlaug recieved the Nobel Peace Prize for cutting the "Goridan knot" of population and food production. Now the planet faces another seemingly intractable problem: how to nourish the planet while preserving the planet. 

| By Janet Fierro

Guest Commentary - Rural Niger Women find Opportunity and Hope through Innovative Business Model

When researchers set out to find natural ways to manage a crop-destroying pest in sub-Saharan Africa cowpea fields they knew the results could have significant positive impact on smallholder farmers. What they may not have expected was the significance of the cottage industry it inspired and the entrepreneurial spirit of the rural women of Niger who led it.