Young entrepreneurs seize great opportunities in rice

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Finding employment as a young person is difficult in most countries. In rural West Africa, it can seem a hopeless task. But a recent initiative in rice proves that change is possible.

(Version française)

In West Africa, youth unemployment remains a major concern. It is a key challenge for most of the region’s governments. In rural Mali and Senegal, lack of employment for young people is one of the main causes of an exodus to the towns and emigration to Europe. This is a cruel irony: Young people are by nature the most likely entrepreneurs. They are often dynamic and keen to innovate; they adopt new technologies rapidly and are generally willing to take sizable risks.

What could be one way out of this dilemma?

Rice has become a strategic crop in West Africa. Many countries, including Senegal and Mali, have defined strong self-sufficiency policies. Increasing production and modernizing the rice value chain will reduce dependence on imports and increase food security. It should also provide more interesting employment opportunities for young people and thus reduce rural exodus.  

Women and youth are involved in every link in the value chain. Young people work in production (soil preparation, sowing, weeding, harvesting), post-harvest (threshing, winnowing, etc.), handling, processing (steaming, cleaning, and sorting of processed products), and marketing. “Several West African states are keen to improve the profitability of these operations”, notes Marnie Pannatier from our Agriservices team. “The aim is to motivate young people to stay in their home area and invest professionally in the rice value chain.”

To tackle the situation, our Foundation engaged in a two-year initiative called PEJERIZ. This is a French abbreviation for Promoting Youth Employment in West African Rice Sectors. “PEJERIZ promoted employment opportunities and sustainable business creation for young people in rural areas”, explains our Senegal Country Director Alassane Aw. “It was all about capitalizing on young people’s ability to stimulate innovation and boost the sector.” The work was funded by CTA, a European Union-backed center that will close at the end of this year. Our implementation partner was AfricaRice.

The initiative had two components. One was capacity-building for youth engagement in agribusiness.  This part focused on developing technical skills and expertise for sustainable youth entrepreneurship.  In the other section, for enterprise development and market linkages, AfricaRice provided competitive grants to 74 young agripreneurs. They came from the production, processing, marketing, and agricultural input sectors. Following a rigorous selection process, they also received coaching, mentoring, and bank links for additional credit.

What did PEJERIZ achieve?

Our Country Director for Mali, Salif Kanté, points to 661 new jobs created there and in Senegal. “In its two years, PEJERIZ also increased the income of 1176 small producers by 107%.”

Through the Enterprise Development and Market Linkages component, we set up eleven Agricultural Mechanization Centers, locally called CEMA. “Five centers in Senegal and six in Mali benefited from a guarantee fund mechanism and other lines of credit for machinery”, comments Marnie Pannatier. These came, for example, from the French Development Agency, in collaboration with the Agricultural Bank of Senegal and the National Agricultural Development Bank of Mali. More than 3000 producers have benefited from CEMA services for tasks such as ploughing, mudding, ridging, and harvesting.

The CEMA also proved their worth as platforms for rural innovation and job creation. In addition to positions such as tractor drivers, mechanics, and office managers, PEJERIZ also led to the emergence of a new profession called Service Provider Agent (“APS” in French). As Alassane Aw explains: “APS are young people trained in the use of digital services such as RiceAdvice or Hello Tractor. Equipped with a tablet, they advise farmers on good fertilizer use, measure the exact area of plots, and organize reservations of CEMA machinery. They receive payment in cash or kind for each hectare monitored with RiceAdvice.”

CEMA in Senegal and Mali recruited 55 APS. They have already advised more than 6500 producers on good agricultural practices. Kah Amadou Diop, an APS in Kassack Nord, Senegal, says: "With digital tools, we can help our communities’ farmers to increase their yields. The work has allowed us to improve our livelihoods and remain at home.”

Kadiatou Diop from Mali tells her success story as a young female APS. Married, and with two children, PEJERIZ enabled her to work for the Sigida Yiriwaton CEMA. “I guided 50 farmers with RiceAdvice, including 13 in last year’s off-season and 37 in the winter. My APS work has allowed me to become an entrepreneur and livestock-owner.”

With her first salary in May 2019, Kadiatou bought a nanny goat, who rapidly gave birth. The herd has now grown to a dozen animals. “In addition, farmers who were happy with their rice harvests each gave me a few kilos. At hulling I got 100kg. Our household ate this rice throughout 2019. I am very happy and so is my husband. Being an APS has transformed my financial life. Today I don't have to worry about providing for myself and my children. If I sell a goat it can take care of daily needs. I encourage my APS colleagues to do the same. The salary of APS may not be enough on its own, but we can create and add other businesses that will bring us money. I like the work of APS and will continue to do it even now that PEJERIZ has formally finished. »

Our Foundation is also engaged in stimulating youth entrepreneurship in several further countries. A recent webinar, for example, focused on our study with IFPRI in Nigeria. Read more