In order to feed a world of nine billion people by 2050, we need more people working in agriculture in all its forms. Despite the universal agreement on the importance of agriculture to our future, however, we are not succeeding in attracting high-potential young people and women to the field. While the reasons for this are many, we believe that one central problem is an insufficient attention given to creation of robust, productive networks.
We see committed networks as being key to supporting impactful agricultural leaders, whoever they are – but can be particularly important for women and youth. Depending on context, these networks might connect people in a particular geographical area; build relationships between new farmers and experienced ones; improve integration between various actors along the food value chain; provide fora for discussing problems and solutions across locales.
Being part of a formal network helps increase access to investment and mitigate risk, since networks multiply connections. This fact is particularly essential to youth and to first-time farmers, whose individual networks may not provide the resources they need to begin their careers in agriculture. They also provide opportunities for formal and informal mentorship, and create an enabling environment in which partnerships between agripreneurs are born. Active networks can be considered in some ways as incubators for grassroots problem-solving of not only SDG2 but many of the other goals as well.
It is especially important for women farmers to be connected to other women farmers, as it sadly remains true across the world that the prototypical image of a farmer is of a man. As women provide knowledge, support, and resources to other women, we hope to see that image transform. At a side event during the Committee on World Food Security (CFS) in October, 2017, we were blown away by one young female farmer, Thato Moagi of South Africa, who manages LeGae La Banareng Farm, which not only produces food but also provides experiential learning to potential agricultural leaders. She stressed the importance of women supporting other women for some very practical reasons: convincing producers of farm tools and implements to consider women when designing their products. She lamented not weighing enough to sufficiently depress the seat sensor on her tractor, and not being able to find good farm gloves of an appropriate size. So it is not only for esoteric ideals that young and women farmers must have the means to self-organize; it is also for fundamentally tactical reasons.
Modern technology can and should absolutely play a central role in establishing and maintaining networks of support, enabling knowledge sharing, and encouraging innovation. While having strong connections with other farmers and agripreneurs in one’s geographical area provides one type of essential support, the nature of technology provides a complement to local knowledge in the form of geographically diverse problem solving. Activating such virtual networks is not only a key way to fast-track the implementation of solutions; it is also a way to clarify to youth and women interested in getting into agriculture that they will be part of a meaningful global profession, not a lone farmer in the field.
This fact was driven home by another remarkable female farmer in attendance at CFS44. Gina Gutierrez, of Mexico, is a commercial dairy farmer and active writer, as well as the energy behind La Vida Láctea, an online campaign to promote consumption of fresh, rather than powdered, milk in Mexico. One of the only female commercial dairy farmers in Mexico, Gina is using social media to create unique networks that convey a new image of farming to young people and women. At CFS in Rome, Gina met Katarina Eriksson of Tetra Laval Food for Development through the Private Sector Mechanism; this network connection has resulted in resource and knowledge sharing between Tetra Laval and Gina’s nascent foundation, which aims to provide healthy milk products to schoolchildren in her region.
One of the most impressive examples of networks for high-potential farmers that we know of is Nuffield International, a programme that provides extraordinary young farmers with resources to design research questions and travel the world meeting with other farmers and agriculture professionals in pursuit of answers that can be implemented back at home. The programme exists creates an international network of farmers engaged in every part of the food chain, including aquaculture, forestry, commodity crops, small organic vegetable farms, livestock, and more. Thato Moagi, mentioned above, not only runs a farm but also uses it as a space to provide experiential learning opportunities to young adults struggling to apply their university educations to the real world. Tiare Boyes, a commercial fisherwoman from Canada, promotes sustainable family fishing on the coast of British Columbia. Sarah Singla, who took over her family farm in France in 2010, advocates for no-till farming methods all over Europe and beyond. These three women are exceptional in their own right, but their insights and strengths are maximized when they have means to connect with each other and with hundreds of other scholars and farmers.
If we wish to celebrate agriculture as a profession that is modern, profitable, and cool, then farmers and agripreneurs cannot be perceived as isolated people hidden in rural locales. They must be socially, intellectually, and financially engaged with other farmers, processors, distributors, vendors, researchers, restaurateurs, and all food chain actors. Accomplishing this means investing not only in the physical infrastructure of the food system, but also in the intellectual and social infrastructure of farmers, with particular attention to those farmers who are most vulnerable. Women and young farmers have the potential to play a pivotal role in feeding our future population, but only if they have the tools and systems to support one another.
The Private Sector Mechanism (PSM), of which the International Agri-Food Network (IAFN) is the focal point, is a network of private sector food actors who share the goal of positively representing the private sector in the context of the Committee on World Food Security (CFS). PSM is honored to engage with many impressive networks and looks forward to contributing to the development of more connections among impactful farmers and agricultural leaders.
This piece was originally posted as guest commentary from IAFN on The Chicago Council website.