When the United Nations General Assembly declared August 12 International Youth Day, they aimed to celebrate the participation of youth to the national development agenda. With the same breath, they intended to draw attention to the day-to-day challenges they face in pursuing their dreams and aspirations to live a decent life free from poverty, unemployment, inequality and exclusion. Currently, Uganda is ranked as one of the countries with the most youthful population in the world. 78 per cent fall under the age of 30 years, according to the State of Uganda Population Report, 2018. This represents a significant development potential of the young people.
This year’s celebration fell under the theme; Transforming Food Systems: Youth Innovation for Human and Planetary Health. It provided us with the opportunity to recognise the roles of young people in transforming national outcomes of the food production process, nutrition, security and health.
Agnes Kirabo, the Executive Director for the Food Rights Alliance defines food systems as the journey that food makes right from the point of production until it enters the human system. Kirabo underscores that they are referred to as systems rather than chains because of the multiple actors that participate in this process. Ultimately everyone is an actor and everyone is concerned with the food system depending on whether they are a producer or a consumer.
Uganda is courting trouble when it comes to feeding this young population. Young people are often criticised for neglecting agriculture. The Uganda Bureau of Statistics 2000 estimates that only 29 per cent of the youth work in subsistence agriculture. Yet in Kirabo’s view is that they are “the largest consumers in the food system, their participation crucial for its sustenance.”
Owing to the complexity of the food system that requires a lot of facilitation in production, processing, transportation and consumption because of the varying needs and complexity that often goes unmet, Kirabo urges the youth to plug in at any point with solutions. “Sometimes there is the production and a matching need, and yet these don’t always intertwine because of various challenges.”
Kirabo opines that if the youth build strong market linkages, they can connect these entities especially using digitisation. In her observation, the youth are not bashful about adopting new technologies in which they get savvy really fast. The youth’s gravitation to these new and nifty gadgets is a talent they can explore to improve the Ugandan food system which is still lacking in the area of digital technology.
Health and food systems are intertwined and the current trends are leaned toward healthy and organic foods, balanced and nutritious foods to deal with health challenges like obesity. As it is, a report by the United Nations Food Systems Summit, 2021, indicates that 22 per cent of Uganda’s population are overweight.
“Another existing problem to solve is food wastage caused by bumper post-harvest and the handling of foods with short shelf life. Uganda loses 40 per cent of food harvest to diseases, rot and pests in the production and processing chain due to poor post-harvest handling and storage. These are golden opportunities for the youth to innovate with effective technologies and create cottage industries to resolve the issue.”
Statistics accrued from The Village database reflect a total reach of startups and entrepreneurs innovating in agriculture at just 6 per cent, the highest within the establishments reach and yet still very low. The health sector accounts for only 0.9 per cent out of a total reach of 14,281 start-ups and entrepreneurs operating in different sectors. “Innovation is work. Turning challenges into opportunities is work.” Money follows ideas and not vice versa, and so rather than clamour for funds, the youth should throw themselves into ideation.
Famunera is a start-up in the food system that bridged the gap created by COVID-19 pandemic restrictions in the first lockdown. With a base of 20,000 farmers using their digital innovation, right from Kampala to the remotest areas in the country. The startup ensures that farmers have access to quality inputs conveniently through its various digital platforms including websites and USSD code.
Participating in the COVID-19 relief fund set up by The Innovation Village, Famunera emerged as one of the winners with a $10,000 cash prize. Founder Enock Naika says these funds went a long way in enabling the company’s growth. “We have seen the farmer numbers increase significantly from 500 to 20,000 after partnering with The Innovation Village, ” Naika said. Through the guidance of the Future Lab at The Innovation Village, there are efforts to ensure that young innovators like Naika do not walk the journey of transforming the agriculture sector alone.
Under the stewardship of Samantha Niyonsaba, the Future Lab is doing its part to transform the food system by creating a vibrant digital Agri-preneurship space in various ways through its Agtech Lab.
So far, Futurelab has been able to reach 105 start-ups operating in food and agriculture and 76 start-ups operating in the health sector. These startups account for 23.6 per cent and 17.2 per cent of both sectors respectively out of the total number of startups the FutureLab works with.
Niyonsaba believes that while the youth are important in the struggle to transform food systems towards sustainability, “it will take joint efforts from the entire ecosystem and its various stakeholders to ensure that they are successful.”