Wealth Mentality Will Revitalise African Agriculture
Is Africa's deplorable state of agriculture a result of its education system? I wish to broaden the way we define “education system” to include extra-curricular types of absorbing learning and attitudes that may contribute to the generally low regard we have for agriculture. Without addressing issues that go beyond formal schooling, we leave a big gap in our problem-solving strategies. These issues are often neglected, partly because they are not as easy to define as more clear-cut issues, such as what to teach in our various agricultural institutions.
The “education gap” that needs attention in agriculture has much to do with African attitudes to wealth-creation and to the nebulously defined concepts of “education” and “development.” Farming in the African mind has become more closely tied to low-level sustenance than to creating wealth. What we have come to associate with the concepts of “education” and “development” is often very narrow and far removed from our realities and our needs.
Say “agriculture” and what most often comes to mind is an impoverished, hoe-wielding farmer, bent over double under the hot sun cultivating his land in torn clothes. This is the reality of many African farmers, and is one reason that so many young people want to run away from farming. This is often with the active encouragement of their farmer parents, who want a better, easier life for their children.
But “agriculture” could also be primarily thought of as the smart entrepreneur who approaches it with the same shrewd determination as any other businessperson motivated by the desire for independence and wealth. It could mean a farmer-businessperson; someone who seizes the business opportunity to add value to primary products, or an engineering professional who fabricates Africa-appropriate farming machinery. It could mean a banker who comes up with an innovative and profitable way of extending credit to small scale farmers.
Changing attitudes is important in moving African agriculture forward as anything taught in agronomy, animal husbandry or farm management courses. Changing deeply entrenched societal attitudes is beyond the scope of the formal school system alone. For some, attitudes towards farming will change from negative to positive when more people can cite examples of farmers who prosper from their vocation rather than just live from hand to mouth each season. For more Africans to prosper at farming, Agriculture must be seen as an occupation and business activity that is as honourable and potentially lucrative as any other.
NGOs, governments and the formal education system can be very effective catalysts for changing attitudes if they could be roped into the effort. But NGO attitudes to business and the profit motive unfortunately often range from mildly suspicious to out-rightly hostile. Governments and school systems are poorly suited to do so because of their plodding, bureaucratic and conservative natures. They tend to hold on to practices long after their usefulness has expired.
Much of Africa still holds that “education” is memorising facts to pass exams. Yet we are living in an age in which it has never been easier to access information, reducing the need to memorise data, which is still the orientation of a lot of schools and colleges. “Education” should primarily mean training in the ability to think, to question, to grasp concepts, to experiment, to objectively compare, to find information and apply it to solving problems.
In many African contexts, “development” is taken to mean a road, building, loan, grant or some other tangible, usually facilitated from abroad. It is often perceived that we will be “developed” when our countries resemble the countries of the West in terms of physical infrastructure, organization, layout and systems. In the global village, we all borrow from each other, but real development is not merely acquiring the symbols of other societies’ progression. “Development” should instead mainly refer to the enabling of Africa’s human potential, from which infrastructure, systems and other tangibles that serve the continent’s needs and best interests will then follow.
The tangibles are not “development” in themselves, but merely the offshoots of human capacitation; the symbols of being “developed.” All over Africa we see examples of infrastructural, physical “development” that has not really benefited the continent and has gone to waste. This is often because investment was not first put into the people for them to be maximally primed to preserve, utilise and benefit from these tangibles, and to begin to create their own types of “development,” rather than be presumed to simply need to copy or purchase that of someone else.
Instead of simply churning out more graduates with diplomas and degrees in agriculture, we should find ways of encouraging more of them to become agricultural entrepreneurs instead of just bureaucrats. We need good agricultural extension workers, lecturers, researchers and so forth, but we also need agricultural risk takers, employment creators and innovators. Africa’s education systems are poorly suited to creating these change-agents. It could even be argued that those systems are so stiff, plodding, academically-biased and out-dated that they actively discourage young people who have practical inclinations.
“What, after all that schooling you want to be a commercial farmer? Why do something so difficult and dirty?! How will you get a wife or husband of your social status? Why don’t you aspire to an office job in the Ministry of Agriculture instead? Who knows, after 20 or 30 years you might even be appointed minister if you play your political cards right.”
The result is that we end up churning out thousands of graduates schooled in ways that mainly qualify them to be office jockeys, when we know our formal employment sectors can only absorb a small fraction of them. Their education gives them a vague sense of being “sophisticated,” but mostly in ways with little relevance to Africa’s needs and realities. They do not see the vast wealth-creation opportunities all around them, including in various areas of agriculture, because they are simply not conditioned and trained to do so.
Just one example of a relatively low-capital agro-business that a young person could make good money from is landscape gardening. In many African urban centers in which there is a growing middle class, there is huge potential to design, plant and maintain the gardens of their private homes and companies. Agricultural graduates would be ideally suited to making a success of this potentially lucrative business, although pure entrepreneurial drive is probably more important than a deep agricultural grounding.
But many of our educated graduates are schooled in narrow, pedantic ways that do not equip them to think broadly about how to apply their knowledge and identify opportunities. It also makes them ashamed to roll up their sleeves and work in realistically accessible but humble fields of endeavour that offer them opportunities for freedom and wealth-creation. We are mis-educating them in society and in schools by telling them they are only “educated” when they have a piece of paper from a college to hang on the wall. We tell them they are only “sophisticated and successful” when they find the elusive job in which they wear a shirt and tie every day.
How can we begin to reverse the mis-education of the African? How can we make our educated youngsters see that choosing “sophisticated” under or un-employment over humble self-employment such as a whole range of agro-activities offer is a pathetic type of poverty mentally? How can we replace it with wealth mentality?
There are no easy answers, but just the kind of revolutionary questions about the African situation which publications like The African Executive give us an opportunity to begin to ask is an important part of the process of waking up Africa. The kind of issues we now have forums to ponder and debate about Africa’s many challenges is part of the process of radically shedding off a poverty mentality and replacing it with wealth mentality. Doing so is one of the most important ways of plugging the gap which an increasingly outmoded and inappropriate education system has left us with in regards to agriculture and our attitude towards it.
By Chido Makunike
Makunike is an Agricultural Consultant based in Dakar, Senegal
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