As was the tradition of his ancestors, my father purchased a plot of land for each of his seven children. But these plots sit fallow somewhere in Enugu’s countryside in eastern Nigeria. There is more land behind his village home in Anambra — a large land that belonged to my uncle who died, diabetic and depressed. It sprouts fruit which fall to the ground and rot, year after year. Meanwhile, his children chase urban dreams in the nearby congested city of Onitsha, ignoring resources that exist literally in their backyards.

I once contemplated studying Agronomy at the University of Ibadan, but my friends warned, “Nobody makes money farming.” Clearly, farming and domestic enterprise present opportunities for African youth to make a decent living. But, like myself and my uncle’s children, many migrate in search of more modern, lucrative jobs (which are few).

Patrick Kabanda summarizes how ambitious young Africans sell their land for motorcycles to run mini transportation businesses in the city. In these congested cities, however, it is easy to see why many could end up victims of crime, crime lords, and psychopaths.

In the 1990s, Africa was a net exporter of agricultural products. Today, the continent (which boasts half of the world’s fertile land) spends $33 billion on food imports (UN, Africa Renewal). The Economist notes that before oil, Nigeria was the world’s largest exporter of peanuts and palm oil. Since then farming has been neglected and yields have stagnated. In South Sudan (also known for its oil), only five percent of farmland is used even though 50 percent is considered prime agricultural soil.

There are a number of successful African-owned farms across the continent. However, minimal development in agriculture output too often contributes to the low number of educated young Africans willing to invest in their ancestral occupation. The UN reports that a majority of African farmers have a hard time storing and transporting produce, or accessing modern technologies that maximize income; and 75% of African households rely on farming for their livelihood.

The perceived unsavory pastoral livelihood is not unique to Africa. In August, 2014, the New York Times published a piece, Don’t Let Your Children Grow Up to Be Farmers, which details the hardships of the American small scale farmer. Like every other occupation, farming does have its downfalls.

But in Sub-Saharan Africa, where there is an abundance of unused arable land, able bodies, and unemployed youth, we cannot afford to ignore agriculture. We can be taught to appreciate the personal and economic rewards of the backbreaking work that our grandparents do. And we can be innovative in our approach.

None of my peers own a garden now. We pride ourselves on being “modern”. Meanwhile, even in modern economies, gardens can be grown in elaborate backyards. Take the White House Kitchen Garden which serves America’s first family and recently, 50 African leaders. Leaders who could help shape policies that make agriculture modern and appealing to African youth.

In my father’s backyard, there was a garden. Where my grandmother spent most of her time. She fed us then, boiled yams with palm oil. We snacked on mangoes and made pipes from the branches of paw-paw trees. Now overgrown, that garden is not inviting.

This can change.

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Kem Megwalu

Kem runs programs to empower youth in the D.C. Metro Area (United States). She grew up in a low income community in Southeast Nigeria and believes that every young person can be a valuable member of their community. Her writing explores development in education, the arts, and culture of Africa.
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