A double tragedy for Africa's Agriculture: COVID-19 exposes African agriculture by targeting its main  source of agricultural labor - the elderly!

With elderly farmers, COVID-19 is a double tragedy for Africa's Agriculture!

What is the average age of farmers in Africa? Which age group is highly predisposed to COVID-19 coronavirus?
If you have the answer to the questions above, then I presume that you would agree with my opinion that Africa’s agriculture is currently staring at a big crisis.

    A  lot of research about Africa’s agriculture has been conducted by academicians, governments, development partners among other agents during the past decades. Some of the most consistent findings is that a huge majority of elderly workforce in Africa is employed in the agriculture sector. The average age of farmers in Africa according to these researches ranges between 55-60 years against a life expectancy of up to 65 years.
Other researches have come up with differing conclusions, arguing that African farmers could be way younger than the reported figures which have been used as the official reference for the past decade. This school of researchers contends that the average age varies between 35-50 years depending on the country.
     The source of difference between the two conclusions is based on the definition of who a farmer is. The former defines a farmer as anyone who spends 80% of their work time on the farm. It excludes family laborers and daily wage earners and centers its focus on farm owners. The latter defines a farmer as anyone who has a stream of revenue from farming activities, be it a wage earner, family member, telephone farmers etc. which gives a wider scope to the definition.
Conservatively, professionals and organizations across the world seem to agree with the first definition that a farmer is an individual who exercises a high level of control on decision making and spends most of his time on the farm business activities. Following this accord, we can, therefore, conclude that African farmers are indeed old, with an estimated average age of around 60 years.
Several reasons explain why the elderly population engages in farming while the youths disengage. Some of the reasons include:

1. Scarcity of land

Land is a rare resource and most youth do not have proprietary rights. Normally, titles deeds are under the traditional owners of the land who are the elderly (parents and grandparents). This means that most youth work on their parent’s farms with very little or no control over decision making. Most families exhibit the “sticky baton” syndrome where the older generation hands over land use to young people in theory, but in practice retain full control over everything that matters.

2. Widespread perception that farming is for the elderly 

Very few youths aspire to become farmers in their later years. It is casually said that venturing into farming should be a retirement plan. With this stereotype, youth dislike being associated with farming.

3. Lack of financial resources

The rate of youth unemployment in Africa is alarming. On average, 40% of youth in any African country are without any source of income. Investing in (modern) farming is capital intensive which distances the jobless youths.
Along With the struggling elderly farming population and the exclusion of youth from agriculture, a global pandemic, COVID-19 has erupted.

The elderly are the main source of agricultural labor in Africa.

    The outbreak of coronavirus could have severe long-term effect on Africa’s farming population than in the short-term. This is because the virus is not going to disappear anytime soon, hence people must adapt and learn to live with it. The unfortunate thing for Africa is that COVID-19 seems to have a soaring appetite for anyone aged around 60 years, which coincidentally is our farmers.
   As coronavirus continues to ravage, we cannot wait and stall anymore. Economies are starting to reopen after failure to completely curb the spread of the virus and due to the ensuing uncertainty vis-à-vis how long it would take to get a cure or a vaccine. However, governments are giving guidelines to ensure the safety of lives as people go back to their daily businesses. Among other measures, the elderly and patients with underlying health conditions are advised to completely stay at home to minimize the risk of exposure. We cannot talk of the elderly without thinking of our farmers. How are they going to protect themselves? Can they work efficiently when confined inside their homes? I do not think so.
It is against this backdrop of aging farmers and the coronavirus outbreak that I propose the below strategy to enhance the sustainability of farm businesses in Africa.
       In comparison elsewhere, I have read that companies with elderly employees are already designing strategies to ensure the safety of all workers amid the pandemic. Some of the strategies include relieving the elderly from roles that require high mobility or exposure to crowds.
       In the same direction, it is important to think of how to relieve our elderly farmers from activities that would expose them to contracting the virus. Depending on the nature of the farm business, every family should assess farm activities that predispose the elderly to the virus. For example, activities such as procurement of inputs and delivery of products to the market should become the responsibility of the youths. And for this to happen, the youth must step in with the passion to take over such roles, especially those whose parents or grandparents are into farming business.
    If this transition is executed successfully, the continuity of farming activities will not give in to the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic and the safety of the aging farmers would be assured.
This is the most appropriate time to discuss the succession plan of the family farm businesses in Africa.
In Kenya for instance according to the latest survey by Deloitte, many family-owned businesses lack any clear long-term succession plan. In farm businesses, for instance, succession occurs in the form of inheritance whereby the farmland is subdivided among siblings.
Succession in farm business management must be redefined to circumvent land subdivision, and COVID-19 presents an opportunity for youth to become the principal assistants and eventually managers of their parent’s farms.

Joseph is a consultant in agribusiness,
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