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Africa is producing a growing number of young entrepreneurs who are adopting new ideas to bring more affordable, quality food from farm to fork

Ikenna Nzewi AfDB AgriPitchIkenna Nzewi is a Nigerian-American, and the CEO of Releaf, a Nigeria-based smallholder farmer food procurement company. (Image source: AfDB)

UN's International Youth Day theme this year- “Transforming Food Systems: Youth Innovation for Human and Planetary Health” has put the spotlight on the role of young people in achieving the success of such a global effort.

“Africa’s youth play a key role in scaling up the continent’s agricultural production that can transform Africa’s food systems. On International Youth Day, we celebrate Africa’s next generation ‘agripreneurs,’ whose innovations in agribusiness are helping to feed Africa,” said Dr Beth Dunford, vice president for Agriculture, Human and Social Development, at the African Development Bank.

Ikenna Nzewi is a Nigerian-American and the CEO of Releaf, a Nigeria-based smallholder farmer food procurement company focusing on industrialising food processing in Africa. Releaf aims to improve food systems, by setting up smaller factories closer to farmers and industrialise Africa. It also wants to finance and teach farmers agricultural practices that make their businesses more productive.

“When the logistics costs are really high, you have to pay farmers low prices for their commodities. When you are closer by, you can afford to pay them more,” Nzewi said.

Releaf’s agribusiness plan won over a panel of judges and investors during the African Development Bank’s AgriPitch Competition, where the continent’s top agripreneurs vie for a share of US$120,000 in seed funding prizes, and a slot in the competition’s business development boot camp. The finalists also receive mentoring and training.

AgriPitch is part of the African Youth Agripreneur Forum, an annual event organised by the bank’s Enable Youth programme. The forum instills a culture of innovation and nurturing for technology-led agribusiness innovations to create jobs and improve youth livelihoods. 

Nzewi and Releaf edged out more than 600 other business proposals from 30 countries and became the winner in early-start up category, last year. Releaf took home a US$20,000 prize cheque.

“The grant was very helpful to operationalise our work – we started operations in January. The publicity was helpful for our company. Being able to have more people hear about…how we are tech-enabled industrialists, has been really exciting,” Nzewi said.

Last year’s virtual competition drew more than 2,500 applications, compared to approximately 600 applications in the 2019 event, which awarded $74,000 in prizes.

“The interest is there – as the prize money gets bigger,” said Enable Youth Coordinator Edson Mpyisi, adding, “youth are more willing to try out new technologies and innovations – they lead [the transformation of food systems] toward higher production and productivity.”

Africa has the largest share of young people in the world: United Nations statistics indicate that 75% of the African population is below the age of 35. About 65% of youth in Africa live in rural areas and are employed primarily in the agriculture sector.

Enable Youth is designed to empower youth at each stage of the agribusiness value chain. Agripreneurs help in harnessing new skills, technologies and financing approaches, so that youth can establish viable and profitable agribusinesses. The target of the programme is to contribute to the establishment of 300,000 youth-led enterprises by 2025.

“We need to think of food and agriculture as a system – not as disjointed issues of poverty or food insecurity. Nutrition, water, good health, the climate, environment, trade, food as a human right – all these are interconnected. The success of young agripreneurs in Africa can help address these important social and economic issues,” Mpyisi added.