Lecture delivered by IFAD President Kanayo F. Nwanze at the University of Gastronomic Science, Italy

Youth and the Future of Agriculture

University of Gastronomic Science Torino, Italy
23 May, 2016

Carlo Petrini,
Dean Grimaldi,
Distinguished Professors,
Esteemed Students,
Ladies and Gentlemen,


I would first like to thank Carlo Petrini for his kind invitation for me to speak at the University of Gastronomic Science. It is my very great pleasure to be here. 

I have to confess that speaking at universities is one of the best parts of my job. Working as I do in the field of food security, it is clear that we need to change the world. But it is you, the up-and-coming generation, who will need to lead the charge! You have fresh eyes and fresh ideas, and the energy to make them a reality.

I look forward to your questions later in the session. I expect you to provide me with new perspectives that I can share with my colleagues at IFAD. I hope that I will also give you some new insights into food and the practicalities of small-scale farming, and their role in development. 

About IFAD

For those of you not familiar with my institution, IFAD is a unique hybrid. On the one hand, it is a United Nations agency with a mandate to eliminate rural poverty and hunger. On the other hand, it is an International Financial Institution, or IFI.

As far as I know, this makes IFAD the only institution in existence that combines an IFI’s head for business with a UN agency’s concern for human welfare and dignity. 

At IFAD, we go where few other agencies or NGOs go, because poverty and hunger run deepest in remote and fragile areas. We currently have 226 programmes and projects in 98 countries across Africa, Asia and Latin America.

At the heart of IFAD’s work are small-scale producers in developing countries. We work with them so that they can grow more, earn more, and improve their food security and nutrition. That last point is important.

It is all too common for poor farmers and their families to be undernourished, and to go hungry even as their income rises. And we all know about the tragedies that occur when farmland becomes poisoned by the overuse of fertilizers and pesticides for too many years. 

So IFAD supports farmers in growing and eating food that is nutritious. We encourage them to be stewards of the environment -- treating the land and water with respect so that it can provide for future generations. 

And we advocate for equitable business relationships with small-scale farmers because too often it is the farmers who are exploited and who benefit least from their labour. I hope you will agree that this approach fits well with Slow Food’s slogan: Good, Clean and Fair.

Slow Food

IFAD is proud of the work we have done in partnership with Slow Food at both the global and the country level. Today, there are ten Slow Food/IFAD Presidia in 6 countries – Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Peru, Sao Tome and Principe, and Uganda. The Presidia projects are ensuring that neglected foods produced by smallholders are promoted and reach wider markets. 

At IFAD, we have a long tradition of working with youth and indigenous peoples, and have found a natural fit with the Terra Madre and Slow Food Youth networks. IFAD participated in the Indigenous Terra Madre in India and Terra Madre Giovanni in Milan last year. And, of course, IFAD will take part in the upcoming Terra Madre in Turin in September.

IFAD is aware that family farmers are the custodians of much of the world’s agro-biodiversity, playing a crucial role in biodiversity conservation. When it comes to the preservation of species, family farms tend to grow a wide variety of cultivars, many of which are landraces. 

We are also aware that the future of food and agriculture lies in the hands of our young people. In addition to increasing the youth focus of our projects, IFAD has been engaged in a number of initiatives. These include CORY – which stands for Creating Opportunities for Rural Youth in West and Central Africa. This network is working to create the right incentives for young women and men to stay and thrive in rural areas. 

IFAD also established the Global Youth Innovation Network (GYIN) so that young people could share, learn and network among themselves. Today there are national chapters around the world, and a GYIN meeting we co-hosted in Senegal earlier this year attracted more than 300 youth participants.

What is food?

Dear Friends. Ragazzi,

As we discuss youth and the future of agriculture, I would like you to consider – what is agriculture? What is farming? What is food?  Are these different terminologies for the same thing, or does each have a distinct meaning? 

In English, the definitions of agriculture and farming are almost identical – to cultivate the soil or rear animals. At IFAD, when we talk about farmers, our definition extends beyond the women and men who tend defined plots of land. Our definition also includes the millions of pastoralists, forest dwellers, fisher-folk and herders who depend on animals or the bounty of the Earth.

All of these women and men produce food – the substances we take into our bodies to maintain life and growth. What they do not produce are food-like substances – the artificially constructed, reconstituted items that satisfy our taste for sugar, salt and starch and that have little nutritional value. 

These non-foods are contributing to a surreal situation where malnutrition is not just a condition of the poor and the desperate; malnutrition is also a problem of those who eat too much of the wrong “foods” – the foods that are not produced by agriculture.  

As a result, in so-called advanced societies, it is possible to have type 2 diabetes caused by being overweight at the same time as being malnourished! 

Clearly, it is not enough that our food is plentiful; it must also be nutritious. At IFAD, we believe that smallholders have a vital role to play in the long-term sustainability of food systems that provide humanity with healthy and nutritious food. It is not enormous factory compounds that will feed the world in a healthy and sustainable fashion; it is agriculture practiced on a small and medium scale.

Yet today, too many of those who work to feed the world are going hungry themselves.

Around 75 per cent of the world’s poorest and hungriest people live in the rural areas of developing countries. Most depend on small-scale agriculture. 

We need to equip them so that so their farms are sustainable – economically, environmentally and socially.

This does not mean moving towards a “big is beautiful model”. In much of the world, the terrain and the socio-political structure are simply not conducive to larger farms. Farm size needs to be based on the conditions on the ground and the most sustainable use of land and resources. In sub-Saharan Africa and the developing countries of Asia, farms of 10 hectares or less account for 80 per cent of the farmland. About 2 billion people depend on the world’s small farms.

It is a common misconception that small farms mean poor farms. This is simply not true. Small farms predominate in rich countries such as Japan, Norway, the Republic of Korea and Switzerland, as well as here in Italy. Countries such as Thailand and Vietnam have built their economies on small farms. 

The benefits of successful small farms reach far beyond the agricultural sector. Cities need rural areas to grow food, maintain clean water and air, and provide decent jobs and homes for a growing population.  

Successful small farms lead to vibrant rural economies. When rural economies are strong they result in higher demand for locally produced goods and services. This, in turn, leads to growth in non-farm businesses such as agro-processing and small-scale manufacturing. 

The net result is a dynamic flow of economic benefits between rural and urban areas so that nations can have balanced and sustained growth. 

Everyone stands to gain when there is a flow of goods, services and money between rural and urban areas. All of us benefit from healthy food, clean water and fresh air.

And balanced growth is essential for a world that needs to provide food, employment and opportunity for a population expected to reach 8.3 billion in 2030 from 7.4 billion today.

I don’t have to tell you that youth unemployment rates are running high in many parts of the world. 

If prospects for young people look bleak here in Italy, where the birth rate is low, imagine what they are like in countries with much higher birth rates. 

In Africa, 60 per cent of the population today is younger than 25. Over the next decade an estimated 600 million young people in developing countries will be competing for around 200 million jobs. It is not realistic to expect cities and the non-farm sector to absorb all these young people. 

We need to develop rural areas and farming systems that will sustain them. We need to create the space and the conditions for young people to be innovative. Silicon Valley, for example, was created by the hard work and imagination of young people. We need a similar intellectual revolution by young people to create new, exciting and sustainable food systems!

The need is dire. Today, the world is seeing the greatest mass movement of people ever. There were 247 million international migrants in 2015. 

And the numbers are rising. In  the Mediterranean alone, more than 188,000 migrants and refugees have already made their way to Europe this year. This compares with less than 92,000 in the first five months of last year. 

But the situation in Europe pales compared to those countries that neighbour conflict zones. Turkey hosts more than 2.5 million refugees from Syria. Lebanon approximately 1.1 million – or about one out of every five people. And tiny Jordan is hosting more than 635,000 Syrian refugees. 

In Asia, every year tens of thousands of migrants and refugees risk their lives crossing Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea. The issue is global.

Why do people migrate?

To escape conflict, certainly. 

But hunger, poverty and inequality also drive people to flee their homes. So does poor governance, persistent indignity and lack of opportunity.

Migrants from Nigeria and Senegal are not running from conflict; they are escaping lives of desperation. Their desperation drives them to risk their lives crossing the Sahel. And if you follow their route, you will find kilometre after kilometre of sand, littered with broken-down vehicles and corpses.

Anyone who questions the link between inequality and conflict should look at the situation in Colombia, where more than 220,000 people have died over the course of a 55-year conflict. This roots of this conflict are in agricultural areas – in the unequal distribution of land, wealth and rights.

These are the conditions that lead people to migrate; they are also the conditions that sometimes push people towards revolution and violence.

And they are the conditions that the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and Agenda 2030 have set out to fix.

Agenda 2030 aims to eliminate poverty, inequality, hunger and under-nutrition at the same time as reducing greenhouse gas emissions and tackling the impact of climate change. 

And this takes me back to agriculture because achieving the SDGS will depend largely on transforming rural areas through investing in small-scale agriculture. 

Whether it’s here in Europe, or Africa, Asia or Latin America, making farming attractive for young people, is crucial. To feed the planet, we need young people to be the farmers of today and of tomorrow; and to provide those jobs for young people that I mentioned earlier -- we need farms to offer a dignified living, a reasonable income and plenty of opportunity.

But as we discuss today’s topic – youth and the future of farming – let me ask you: would you consider a future in agriculture if you knew it meant spending the rest of your life without access to electricity or running water? If it meant raising your children in a village with no school and no health clinic? If it meant contemplating day-after-day, week-after-week, year-after-year of back-breaking labour in the fields, using unwieldy tools that were used by your great-grandparents?

It is little wonder that the young people in developing countries are choosing to leave the family farm.

We tend to romanticise the life of the artisanal farmer, in tune with the beauty of nature. The truth for most of the world’s small-scale farmers is far more prosaic. Small-scale farming, as it is practiced in most of the developing world, is back-breaking. This is one reason why so many young people migrate from the farm to the city – believing that their future will be brighter, but too often ending up unemployed and living on the streets or in slums.

It doesn’t have to be this way. 

I will share with you some of my thoughts on what can and must change, but I am also eager to learn from the young people in the audience. 

What do you think it would take to convince young farmers to stay in rural areas? 

At IFAD, we see time and time again that when rural areas offer young people good options for employment and an outlet for their energy and creativity, young people are more willing to stay on the farm, and to revive and sustain their land and their communities.

Let me give you two examples. 

In my own country (Nigeria), the Niger Delta is better known for its violence than for its farming. For many years, it was considered a “no go zone”.  

But a project there has created more than 20,000 jobs for young women and men. I have visited the project myself and I was so impressed by the enthusiasm these young people have for their vegetable and fish farms. These young “agripreneurs” have become role models. They are contributing to stability, nutrition and job creation in their communities. 

In north-eastern India, IFAD also supports a project in an areas know for insurgency. We attribute the project’s success to its community-driven approach and IFAD’s neutrality. As a result, we are trusted by government and the local community alike.

The project supported women in forming collectives, regenerating the natural resource base and improving sanitation. Women now have more economic power and young people have work. I have been told that in each of the project villages, mothers are now able to make sure their sons do not join the insurgency groups!

What has to change, of course, is investment in rural areas – in infrastructure, energy, clean water, and ICT connectivity. 

Investment in processing plants, warehouses, roads and ports can reduce post-harvest waste and improve access to markets. 

Investment in schools, clinics and social services make it possible for young people in rural areas to start a family and build a life. 

These investments need to be backed up by polices that support smallholder-led agriculture, that offer incentives for investment in agriculture, that reduce the risks for farmers and their partners; and that facilitate the ability of poor farmers to access finance and technology, and to have rights to water and land. 
Declarations and commitments do not bring about change. There needs to be action. 

Land tenure

To attract young people to farming, we also need to ensure they have rights to the land they farm. Land is the biggest asset that poor rural women and men have. And the value land is more than economic; it also has great social and cultural significance. 

But smallholder farmers, and in particular women, young people and indigenous people often have weak tenure and risk losing their land to more powerful neighbours, private companies, or even to members of their own families. Securing land rights in the first step towards creating rural areas that are free from poverty and hunger. 

Over the years, IFAD has introduced a range of measures to strengthen land tenure security and access to natural resources for poor rural people. We estimate that in the past five years alone, between 37 million and 45 million people have benefitted from these. 


The projects I have mentioned focus on creating opportunities for young women as well as men. A future in farming must offer equal opportunities to young women in rural areas. Women are usually the most disadvantaged members of rural societies – without title to the land they are farming, or the power to retain the profits from their hard work.

In many developing countries, girls are expected to work on the family farm without pay and without being able to inherit the land. As a result young rural women are leaving home to work in urban centres doing menial jobs while their brothers, who have greater land rights, are more likely to stay close to home and to return for the farming season.

Throughout my years at IFAD I have advocated for investing in women and improving their rights because when you invest in a man, you invest in an individual, but when you invest in a RURAL woman you invest in a family and a community. There is compelling evidence that women’s education, health, nutritional status and decision-making power have a significant impact on the health and nutritional status of children.  

Women are the primary care givers in rural households. And when women earn money, they are more likely to spend it on food for the family.

Indigenous peoples

As I mentioned earlier, food is not just about filling bellies; it is about nutrition and balanced diets. And it is also about cultural heritage. As you know so well here in Italy -- taste, flavor and texture are all important elements of tradition and cultural identity.

Development workers need to be aware of these issues. For example, maize is a staple food for millions of people in sub-Saharan Africa. Although yellow maize is more nutritious than white maize, it is considered to be an animal feed and most East Africans do not like the taste. Local communities will only accept the more nutritious maize if it is introduced with an education programme, and with recipes that appeal to local tastes. 

Indigenous peoples have much to teach us about the social and spiritual value of food. Today, there is a growing recognition even in industrialized societies that if we want to feed from the bounty of the land, we must nurture the earth. Treating food purely as a commodity has not served the earth of its people well. 

Indigenous peoples know that if they want Mother Earth to nourish them, they must also nourish Mother Earth. They also have knowledge of traditional foods that are rich in nutrients as well as tradition. Agriculture of the 21st century can learn from their sustainable and holistic practices, which perhaps explains why Slow Food has partnerships in Argentina, Colombia and Peru, with their large populations of Indigenous Peoples.  

Dear Professors. Ragazzi, 

I am speaking to you today as the head of a United Nations agency, but I am also an agricultural entomologist by training and spent many happy and productive years as a researcher. 
I am proud to say that my earlier years as a research scientist in several countries across sub Saharan Africa and India taught me a number of lessons that have stayed with me throughout my career. It taught me that it is important to take risks and to think outside the box. 

Today, I would like to share with you four of the most important lessons I have learned about unlocking the potential of smallholder agriculture in the developing world.

The first is that development starts with people. This means listening to local people because they have local knowledge. They may not have university educations – or even be literate by our terms. But they too can be innovative. And they can introduce us to ways of thinking that are not confined by our own experiences and cultural backgrounds. 

Starting with the people means taking the time to build the capacity of farmer groups and organizations because, individually, smallholders have little power. But when they join together, they have greater purchasing and bargaining power, and can influence the policies that affect their lives.

Poor rural people know what they need. Our job is to help them get it.

The second lesson is that a one-size-fits-all approach does not work for agriculture. Over the course of my long career I have seen far too frequently how the best of intentions can fail when they are made in a vacuum -- without responding to the reality of the landscape or the desires of project participants. 

We need to have our eyes open to the conditions on the ground. Why give a poor farmer in Africa a new seed when that farmer does not have access to safe storage? When the nearest market town is five hours down a dirt road and the farmer is forced to sell at the farm gate? 

Several years ago, IFAD devised a project to support remote Pacific islands. The communities were asked to select anything they wanted to assist their development. Instead of requesting a road or computers, they asked for wheelbarrows! Why? Because wheelbarrows can go down steep, dirt paths. They are sturdy, and do not require expensive replacement parts. Today, these wheelbarrows are helping farmers get their produce to market more quickly and easily, but they also serve as taxis and ambulances for remote communities.

Often, simply giving poor farmers access to existing technology can make a tremendous difference. In Lesotho, for example, farmers have been able to reduce their livestock losses by having access to timely weather forecasts. Knowing how the weather will change has allowed them to protect livestock from extreme heat or cold.

My third lesson is that for poor farmers, profit and income should not be considered dirty words. If farmers cannot make a profit so that they can invest in their businesses, send their children to school, and buy the food that they cannot grow, then there is little incentive to stay in farming. Even businesses that are good, clean and fair need to be profitable. 

You may know about the Golden Chocolate Bar competition. Last year, one of the 9 best mono-origin chocolates produced in Italy came from a project IFAD supports in Sao Tomé and Principe.

Thirteen years ago, IFAD brokered a partnership between the French chocolate company Kaoka and an export cooperative that brought together about 3,000 cocoa smallholders. 

Kaoka provided the farmers with technical and commercial training, as well as access to European markets. The farmers worked with the company and with IFAD to improve the quality of their beans and to understand what they needed to do to meet organic standards.

As a result, farmers were able to get organic and fair-trade certification, and to sell dried beans to Kaoka at premium prices, based on negotiated contracts and according to ethical schemes. 

Following the success of this first partnership, four more have been established – with Malongo and Hom&Ter in France, GEPA in Germany, and, of course, with Slow Food in Italy. 

My fourth and final lesson is – do not be afraid to dream big but think small. Sometimes, it is the smallest interventions that, when scaled up, have the biggest results. 

For example, one simple technology supported by IFAD was the development of urea deep placement in Bangladesh. Farmer place mini briquettes of urea near the root of rice plants rather than spreading urea over the surface of the soil. This helps release nitrogen throughout the growing season and allows for better absorption and efficient of the fertilizer. At the same time, it reduces run-of and decreases the release of volatile greenhouse gases. 

The technique has proved remarkably effective. Rice yields have increased by at least 23 per cent and in some places as much as 70 per cent. 

Here, let me also make a plea not to overlook processing and storage. Such a small thing can make such a difference. In Europe, when we think about food waste we think about the food we throw out. But consider that an estimated 20 to 40 per cent of crop production in sub-Saharan Africa is lost because of poor processing and storage. Think of how many people that 20 to 40 per cent would feed! 

Dear professors and students,

We know that sustainable agricultural development makes it possible for poor family famers to lift themselves out of poverty and improve their own food security and nutrition. It enables them to feed the world’s rapidly growing population. And it allows smallholders to contribute to their nation’s economic growth and development. 

To the students here today, the years ahead hold tremendous opportunities in agriculture. We will need your talent, your energy and your creativity.     

I hope this talk will inspire you to do some research and to check out IFAD’s internship programme. We have room for bright, ambitious young people who want to change the world!  

I will now take questions from the floor.

But I would like to start with a question for you: What do you think it will take for young women and men to build their lives and realize their dreams in rural areas?