Making agriculture count again in Kenya

The Kenyan youth are steeped in a dilemma of sorts. Yet the agricultural sector presents a huge opportunity for creation of employment to absorb the youth and ensure food security for the future generation; yet the Kenya Youth Agribusiness Strategy 2017–2021 states that the numbers of young people involved in farming as an occupation or business is decreasing at an alarming rate.

Text Osir Otteng Photos South Eastern Kenya University

Agriculture is identified as a career of a last resort, one of drudgery and low monetary benefits, which most student shun in their choices of study areas in higher education institutions.

Several reasons have been advanced for this low rating of agriculture despite it being touted as the backbone of Kenya’s economy, contributing 26% of the country’s gross domestic product. These include negative image created around agricultural pursuits as a means of livelihood, limited information on available opportunities in agriculture value chain and low visibility of youth success imitative in agriculture.

The collapse in recent years of a number of key agriculture-based state enterprises, like sugar factories, coupled with lack of training in entrepreneurship for students of agriculture, have only exacerbated the already bad situation.

It is in view of the foregoing scenario that the partnership of five higher education institutions (HEIs) has come as a relief to the dwindling fortunes of the sector. South Eastern Kenya University has joined hands with peers in Africa and Europe to strengthen bio-entrepreneurship in sub-Saharan Africa.

The Problem-Based Learning Bioeconomy Africa project, which brings together institutions of higher learning from Kenya, Zambia and Finland, seeks to strengthen bioeconomy through promoting problem-based learning, entrepreneurship, innovation and digital learning methods.

vegetable crops in a covered farm
A worker tends a vegetable crop at the SEKU farm

PBL-BioAfrica seeks to reform bioeconomy curricula with a view to improve graduates’ work life-relevant competence, and strengthen the students’ ability to tackle current local and global issues.

SEKU’s dean of School of Agriculture and Veterinary Sciences, Dr. Julius Kilungo, is upbeat about the project, saying the University and Kenya at large stand to gain through the envisaged reorientation of agriculture curricula, to instil into learners an entrepreneurial mentality, which will have a multiplier effect on the sector in the country.

“Food deficit is in Kenya is a big problem which has been exacerbated by the general lack of entrepreneurial skill among agriculture graduates, who have no means of turning their knowledge into money. PBL-BioAfrica has come in to plug this hole by creating the nexus between the farm and money,” says Dr. Kilungo, who is coordinating the PBL-BioAfrica Project in SEKU.

The project, coordinated by Häme School of Applied Sciences, is part of the Finnish Higher Education Institutions Institutional Cooperation Instrument (HEI ICI) programme for building higher education capacity in the developing world.

In Kenya, the low regards for agriculture by the youth has also been attributed to the fact that agricultural production has for long been dominated by elderly people who still engage in traditional agricultural practices with little success. The PBL-BioAfrica seeks to address this by infusing technology into agriculture. According to Florence Nakayiwa, Deputy Executive Secretary at the Regional Universities Forum for Capacity Building in Agriculture (RUFORUM), digital learning and teaching will facilitate reaching a large number of young Africans.

gate of Mumias Sugar company
GATES CLOSED: Collapsed Mumias Sugar Company. The collapse of many agriculture based-enterprises, leading to reduced job opportunities have served as a disincentive to would-be students of agriculture.

“RUFORUM has 129 member higher education institutions from 38 African countries”, Dr. Nakayiwa says. "I am optimistic that although PBL-BioAfrica is being implemented in Kenya and Zambia, best learning practices will be disseminated to the wider Sub-Saharan Africa through our network of agriculture universities."

Dr. Kilungo says that the SEKU team is working to put information technology at the heart of teaching and practice in agriculture. This will help bring the young people back in the fold.

“Through PBL-BioAfrica we are targeting to remove agriculture from the “blue-collar job” bracket, which is the main reason the youth in Kenya are avoiding it both as a subject and as an occupation,” he says, adding that so far the team has conducted an ICT competency survey among both staff and students, besides carrying out cross-discipline sensitisation among members of faculty.

SEKU’s Prof. Jonathan Mwania, who sits on the Quality Assurance Committee of PBL-BioAfrica, says the project has come in at the right time to complement the competency-based curriculum currently being adopted in Kenya.