Launching the Agrifood Youth Opportunity Lab in Nigeria

Closing the Youth Skills Gap through Capacity Building in Agriculture

In Nigeria, the proportion of youth aged 18–24 in the population is significantly higher than the global average, reaching almost 70 percent of the whole. While this population can be viewed as a great asset with vast potential, Nigerian youth are plagued by scant opportunities for their personal and professional development. Barriers include limited access to education; growing student dropout rates; rising unemployment, with a particular shortage of white-collar jobs; lack of access to finance for business initiatives—all at a time of heightened urban migration. This has led to growing masses of idle youth, who, in the absence of meaningful economic opportunities, threaten to destabilize the entire region as we have seen with the rise of Boko Haram.

In the last 15 years, a number of government administrations have made a concerted effort to address these challenges through a variety of targeted programs. Recognizing the agricultural sector as the bedrock of Nigeria’s economic re-engineering and development, the current government developed a robust and focused policy that supports agricultural development at all levels. There are several public initiatives that contribute to this effort using financing and the application of Information and Communications Technologies (ICT) across various agricultural value chains. As government alone cannot tackle the magnitude and complexity of these growing challenges, the success of these forward-thinking initiatives hinges on cooperation and coordinated contributions across the public, private, and social (e.g. nonprofits and social enterprises) sectors.

In a timely and strategic effort towards addressing youth employability challenges in the agricultural sector, the Mastercard Foundation and Michigan State University (MSU) launched the Agrifood Youth Opportunity Lab (Ag Youth Lab) in May 2017. The five-year, $13 million collaboration intends to provide 15,000 young people between the ages of 18-24 with access to employment and entrepreneurship opportunities in the fast-growing horticulture, aquaculture, poultry, cassava, and oilseed sectors in Tanzania and Nigeria.

Edwin Ndibalema walks through The International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) screenhouse where they test drip irrigation to grow sweet peppers and tomatoes.

In Nigeria, the Ag Youth Lab will focus on youth capacity building in major cultivation regions surrounding Lagos State. By targeting economically disadvantaged, hard-to-reach, and out-of-school youth, the Lab aims to support their transition into employment in the agrifood system. MSU will lead the implementation in collaboration with regional partners including the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture, Venture Garden Group, Oyo State College of Agriculture and Technology, Sokoine University Graduate Entrepreneurs Cooperative, and the Buni Innovation Hub in Tanzania’s Commission for Science and Technology.

“There is a need to see the youth in Nigeria as an opportunity rather than as threat to society,” said Julie A. Howard, Ph.D., the Ag Youth Lab Director and Sr. Advisor to the Dean of International Studies and Programs at MSU. Unlearning and changing the labels of targeted groups commonly seen in a negative light is necessary in order to foster a new social contract with at-risk youth.

There is a need to see the youth in Nigeria as an opportunity rather than as threat to society.

A main focus of training under Ag Youth Lab will be assisting vulnerable individuals to develop life skills. This will provide a solid foundation for the development of key business skills, while equipping and challenging young people with the mindset needed to unleash their full potential. The program places further emphasis on ensuring matching opportunities for young women. Deliberate monitoring of diversity indicators will help to measure progress.

The project also intends to introduce technological tools that can support and scale a shift from traditional agricultural practices to mechanization. The use of technology across the value chain will increase access to new and existing opportunities for employment and entrepreneurship development.

Evidence-Based Approach
“The approach is entirely based on co-discovery of solutions and co-design of programming undertaken jointly by MSU and its local partners in Nigeria and Tanzania,” said Nathalie Me-Nsope, an assistant professor in international development from MSU. The project’s development was informed by an in-depth MSU study conducted at the behest of the Mastercard Foundation. The study results added to the Foundation’s interest and further supported the decision to call on MSU and its local partners to lead implementation.

The Ag Youth Lab launched not with a ‘business as usual approach’ but rather as an introduction to an evidence-based paradigm of enquiry that is highly consultative and informed by a range of actors who have insights into the landscape’s opportunities and gaps. Leveraging resources and building collaborative efforts in a participatory process will be critical to avoid duplication and competition.

Following the Ag Youth Lab Launch in Lagos in May 2017, the program set to work immediately by launching a series of focus group listening sessions in Lagos, Oyo, Osun, and Ogun States. The objective was to get input from diverse private and public sector actors and youth to guide the program’s recruitment, curriculum and facilitation to employment and entrepreneurship. The focus group discussions consisted of stakeholders from academia, the private sector, NGOs, youth leadership, project partners, development partners, and government ministries at national and state levels. The groups were asked to discuss their perceptions of employment and entrepreneurship opportunities available to youth in the target value chains – horticulture, poultry, cassava, and oilseeds.  Participants also discussed specific skill requirements, and barriers that currently constrain young men and women from taking up these opportunities.

Nura Salisu Dakasoye, a tomato farmer in Nigeria, has witnessed the importance of partnerships and diversifying market linkages to reduce post-harvest loss. In addition to horticulture, the Ag Youth Lab also targets the poultry, cassava, and oilseed value chains.

Critical Partnerships
To ensure that youth training focuses on marketable skills and industry priorities, the project design emphasizes alignment with industry partners, markets, and training actors. This includes identifying specific employment opportunities, and business niches that correspond with entrepreneurship development. The project will also assist entrepreneurs to identify sources of finance for their business ideas. Ag Youth Lab will actively partner with leading private sector organizations, including the Retail Council of Nigeria, and the Nigerian Young Professionals Forum. Through such partnerships, Ag Youth Lab participants will have access to resources including high-level private sector mentors and the Retail Academy, whose training integrates the best practices of agrifoods industry training institutions.

Other partnerships critical to the program’s success are those with the relevant federal and state government programs. Collaboration with the public sector enables an adaptive program development that follows evidence-based and demand-driven information in the agrifood value chain.

There is a clear indication that the project’s innovative approach has the potential to influence and inform modeling investment for youth to increase productivity, employability, and to a large extent, make a positive impact on overall security in Nigeria. Job creation for 15,000 youth in the two countries is a large step that will invariably encourage further investments to bolster employment efforts.

The Opportunity to Create Hope out of Hopelessness
The role of the private sector as a ready-made ‘buyer’ of the skillsets of young professionals and the products of youth entrepreneurs is critical. Training in ‘life skills’ will also significantly change the behavior pattern of out-of-school youth and prepare them for productive reintegration into mainstream society. Finally, a significant takeaway from the Ag Youth Lab’s model is the locally informed and locally driven approach with its explicit inclusion of girls and young women, as an empowerment strategy. Here is an excellent opportunity to create hope out of hopelessness.

Feature image courtesy of Ewien van Bergeijk – Kwant.

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