When we talk about African development, there is a belief that its booming population can only equal crisis. By 2040, Africa’s workforce could be one billion strong, so finding jobs for this young population should be at the forefront of government agenda. This challenge is coupled with Africa’s increasing demand for varied and nutritious foods.

The solution to both is obvious: build successful agribusinesses. These will not only provide food for Africa, but jobs and wealth for young entrepreneurs.

A new report from the Montpellier Panel sets out recommendations on exactly how this can be done. There is, however, a long way to go before this becomes a reality. Africa’s agricultural value chains are underdeveloped and in places non-existent.

One concrete way to strengthen an agribusiness value chain is to cater for new customers, according to the report. Fragmented producers or businesses can be brought together to combine their resources. Growth of national and regional trade for the urban retail sector should also be supported. Investments that aid these three processes will deliver a stronger environment for jobs and wealth to be created.

Young people still view agriculture as a dead-end career that entails life-long labour on a farm. However, it does not have to be this way. With the right investments to support entrepreneurs in agriculture, profitable careers could await Africa’s young population.

For example, take 27-year-old Senai Wolderfael. A business administration graduate, he spotted a gap in the market for exporting spice blends to Ethiopians living abroad in the US and Europe. Since he set up in 2012, demand for his products has increased, and he now exports to African markets. He has carved a successful career from agriculture โ€“ without a hand hoe in sight.

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So how can development professionals help fledgling entrepreneurs in rural food production to become business people?

The first intervention that the report recommends is bridging gaps in education. This does not only mean better higher education programmes in agriculture, but also business training courses that equip young people with the skills to run small businesses.

Access to finance is also crucial. And should not stop at access to microfinance. The businesses that have outgrown microfinance, but are still not ready to receive help from mainstream banks, also require finance. They should be supported with their own tailored financial products that will help them grow to a size where they can bank with commercial banks.

Lenders should also to take into account the viability of the whole value chain in which an agricultural entrepreneur operates, sharing the risk among other actors and allowing borrowers to benefit from higher lending on better terms.

Finally, it is important to realise you cannot create an entrepreneur. But you can create the environment that will help them thrive. Governments and donors must invest in the institutions and infrastructure that support them. Economic policies and financial incentives must be put in place to inspire a generation of agriculture entrepreneurs.

Investment in the rural food sector can do more than produce food. It can produce jobs, wealth and robust livelihoods for a young continent that wants a challenge. Let’s show Africa’s youth that agriculture can turn a profit and be an attractive career.

Emily Alpert is the deputy director of Agriculture for Impact, which acts as the convener for the Montpellier Panel.

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