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Agriculture in Mali Needs Professionalizing

Modernization and entrepreneurship are keywords to make agriculture attractive for young people in Africa.

Agriculture in Mali Needs Professionalizing

At the big market in Bamako trucks full of fruit and vegetables from Morocco are unloaded. As in so many other big cities in West Africa, the growing middle class is pushing up the demand for high quality food. Mali’s own agricultural sector is unable to meet that demand: produce quality is low and supply is not reliable. As a result, the country imports 17 million US dollars’ worth of fruit and vegetables every year.

It’s a shame in a country with such great agricultural potential and where all politicians are worried above all about one thing: how can we create jobs for our young people? Mali has a young population: 60% are under the age of 25. Youth unemployment is high: 1 in 5 young people have no work. Those who do tend to have unstable jobs in the informal sector. They help out in family businesses or try to eke out a living as a trader. Their earnings are low and they have no security.

Modernization and entrepreneurship in agriculture

Commercializing its agricultural sector will enable Mali to create jobs for young people and to produce fruit and vegetables for neighboring countries. In ICCO’s view, the keys to making agriculture attractive to young people are modernization and entrepreneurship. Ataoulaye Bah, who works for ICCO in Mali, knows for sure that agriculture has to be professionalized: “Most Malians farm do meet their own subsistence needs. But successful farming is based on science and business: it’s not a question of just seeing how things go; you have to do the right things at the right moment. That’s the only way to produce enough for your own requirements and at the same time run a commercially viable business.”

Modernization is desperately needed to encourage young people to see a future in farming. The sector has a bad image: hard work and low earnings. And through modern media young people know, as they do all over the world, that there are other options. Although the average age of Malians is declining, the average age of farmers is rising. ICCO’s program “Creating Job Opportunities for Youth” aims to make new technologies available to young farmers in Mali, such as solar-powered water pumps. Innovative technology is crucial for increasing yields, improving quality and making work less labor intensive, all ways to make farming more attractive to young people.

Opportunities for young people in Africa

There are also opportunities for young people outside farming. There is a big demand for small companies that can make the new technologies available to farmers, who need high-quality inputs such as water pumps, and also improved seed. Advisory services are also required to provide information, for example on how to store and transport produce. And last but not least, small processing businesses – juice manufacturers for instance – play an important role in stimulating demand for farm produce. These new business branches are where young people’s interests lie and diversification is vital for making agriculture more profitable.

The “Creating Job Opportunities for Youth” program offers support to young people who want to get going in these sectors by providing start-up capital and coaching.  

It’s important that young people learn how to run a business. APEJ (l’Agence pour la Promotion de l’Emploi des Jeunes), the Malian office for promoting youth employment, focuses heavily on stimulating entrepreneurship in labor-intensive sectors. One of the main reasons is that at present 300,000 young people enter the labor market every year, and by 2030 that figure is likely to have doubled. Young people with a nose for business can start as a one-man company, perhaps expanding to become SMEs that then employ other people. Ataoulaye cites the president of the African Development Bank, Akinwumi Adesina: “Africa must start by treating agriculture as a business”.

Successful young agri-entrepreneurs

There’s tremendous potential in the agricultural sector. There are still so many areas to be developed which would contribute to creating employment opportunities for young people,” said Amadou Diallo, an agricultural entrepreneur who is also active in Mali’s youth movement. Amadou started his business three years ago after taking part in the ‘youth caravan’, an initiative by AgriProFocus and ICCO to bring young people in contact with successful agri-entrepreneurs to inspire them.

I’d always wanted an office job and had already tried to set up a business. After visiting the entrepreneurs in the youth caravan I thought to myself: ‘I can achieve more than them, with all those opportunities!’” Amadou started his business on land belonging to his cousin. With initial capital of about 35 euros he bought 10 hens and 2 roosters. Now he also has pigeons, goats and sheep. He learned most of what he knows about breeding animals from television and the internet. “The Netherlands is one of the biggest milk exporters; I could learn so much from you, like about how to process milk into other products.

Agricultural consultant

Abdoulaye Mohamed Niang also had other plans. He studied languages, but when his father came up with the idea of setting up a farm together with his sons, Abdoulaye decided to retrain in France. The Niang’s farm became so successful that they started to train smaller farmers in order to be able to meet the demand for produce from their customers. In the end they decided to set up a consultancy company, and one of the things they do is to provide training for farmers in some of ICCO’s projects.

The agricultural potential here is big, but conditions are tough. We have made so many mistakes that what we actually sell is our own learning curve. We see our consultancy company as a way to make the existing technologies available to others,” explained Abdoulaye. “The chance of having a good harvest is about 90%, but to achieve that you have to know what you’re doing. You have to use high quality inputs, such as good seed. The correct technology is important: for example you have to know how to prepare planting beds so weeds and diseases do not develop. And drip irrigation is important for controlling the water supply. These kinds of techniques increase the likelihood of success and also make the work less labor intensive.” 

According to Abdoulaye, the biggest challenge the agricultural sector faces is that much of the land is not yet irrigated or connected to the energy network. “Banks are not oriented to farming; interest rates are too high and the duration of loans too short.”

Make a plan

Nevertheless Amadou and Abdoulaye are optimistic. Both say it’s important that farmers have a plan. Abdoulaye: “You have to know what you’ve planted and how much you’ve produced, so you know what works and what doesn’t. And you have to know how to reach the sales outlets. Small farmers have no idea of demand and their competitive position. They just sell to middlemen while sometimes they could get up to five times as much by selling to wholesalers.” 

Wendy Schutte – Business Developer ICCO