There’s an App for That: The Role of Youth in Driving New Technologies in Agriculture

Annah Latane. Food Security & Agriculture Specialist

Information Communications Technology (ICT) is increasingly prevalent in agricultural work. Youth engagement may be a critical driver of this technology. Credit: Alexandra Morgan-Kisarale/Dimagi

“I can’t believe how young everyone is!”

Alice Nkunzimana, president of Papyrus, a development firm in Haiti, couldn’t believe her eyes. The entire team standing in front of her looked exceptionally young. It was June 2016, and the group was assembled in Port-au-Prince for its first team meeting. Their mission: to develop and implement a new, mobile platform to help Haiti’s smallholder sorghum farmers improve their businesses and sell crops to big-ticket buyers.

“Well,” I responded. “Isn’t that who you want developing new software — young people?”

The young Papyrus team developing new, appropriate technologies to help the Smallholder Alliance for Sorghum in Haiti (SMASH). Credit: Annah Latane/RTI International

The idea that youth are typically better at adopting innovative technologies isn’t new. Hundreds of scientific studies over the past several decades have rounded out the literature around this topic, and generally point to the fact that there is a digital divide between generations.[1] Anecdotally, I’ve lost track of the number of times that a work colleague or older family member has asked for help using a relatively simply software tool. Who in this nebulous group we dub “youth” (roughly ages 18–35) hasn’t had those experiences?

RTI’s ongoing work with Papyrus in Haiti, as well as with a local youth-owned company on a pilot project in Tanzania, have shown us that channeling youths’ energy, enthusiasm, and natural capacity with technology can be a major “win” for the future of food security and agricultural development.

With nearly 800 million people still hungry in the world — 98 percent of them living in developing countries — and with our need to meet a rising and diversifying food demand globally, some major wins are going to be necessary to nourish the world. While new technologies and platforms may not be the silver bullet to solve global food insecurity, they may help modernize the field of agriculture, providing a potentially great way to re-engage the youth population who are often disinterested in their “parents’ agriculture.”

For example, rural food producers in developing countries are facing ever-greater barriers to tapping into more lucrative urban markets, where populations (and, therefore, potential food consumers) are expected to jump from one-half to two-thirds of the global population, or 6 billion people, by 2050. New technologies can close the gap between rural producers and urban consumers, which helps solve the dual challenge of raising rural incomes and feeding growing urban populations. Our Haiti and Tanzania experiences have shown that youth will likely need to play some of the most critical roles in ensuring that appropriate technologies are developed, marketed, and applied by target populations.

For Papyrus and their project, the Smallholder Alliance for Sorghum in Haiti, we helped develop a new mobile app that tracks sorghum along the value chain to help as many as 18,000 farmers supply sorghum to large buyers. One of the big takeaways? The project is not only building a tool that will help rural smallholders — it is building a unique rural-urban linkage by creating a foundation for young staff from Haiti’s urban areas to work in Haiti’s agriculture sector for the rest of their careers.

In our 2016 pilot project in Tanzania, we helped the local youth-owned company Innovify to develop a new app that helps agro-dealers manage day-to-day business, grow their client base, and market geographically appropriate inputs to farmers. Through that work, we helped demonstrate to young ICT professionals that there is both a need and a market for their products in rural areas.

Screen shots from the digital applications developed in Haiti (left) and Tanzania (right) show the range of services such technologies can provide to farmers, agro-dealers, and others throughout the food value chain.

A main lesson learned in Tanzania: Young people are drivers of social change through their role in developing and promoting technology solutions, and they can help to democratize access to agricultural information, training, inputs, and technologies among those who have traditionally been locked out of these benefits.

Perhaps the biggest takeaway is that all is not lost when it comes to engaging youth in agriculture. Many may not wish to toil in the field as their parents and grandparents did, but they can become re-engaged in the industry through technology development and entrepreneurship. By leveraging youths’ talents and interest in technology, we can empower the next generation while also helping to ensure greater food security around the world. Now that’s a win-win.

Want to hear more about youth in agriculture? Check out this recent blog by RTI’s Executive Vice President for International Development, Paul Weisenfeld.

[1] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4296914/

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