On a normal day, bodaboda’s (motorcycle taxis) swarm the bustling city of Kampala like locusts on a farm of fresh greens. Estimates by different studies and sectors put the number of bodaboda’s in Kampala alone at between 200,000 and 300,000. Normally, it is almost impossible to blink and not locate one, but now with the COVID 19 pandemic, the government has banned motorcycle taxis in the city of Kampala on the persuasion of the close proximity between drivers and passengers. Now, it is almost unimaginable that the frenetic, teeming and electric city in the pearl of Africa, considered to be the motorcycle capital of the world, is a barren sweep of stones and earth.

Not too far away in the Ugandan countryside, a quiet revolution is complementing the silence and relative quiet emanating from the reduced activity in the city. As the corona virus ravages across the world and graduates from an acute distraction to a long-term disturbance, some bodaboda drivers typically below the age of 35 are turning back to their farms to eke a living. For some of them, the farm is a far too familiar ground as they were previously farmers and farm workers who gravitated away from farm work to operate bodaboda’s in the city. Others are however finding themselves between a rock and hard place having sold their fair share of land inheritance to purchase bodaboda’s.

Typically, a choice between farm work and a career in an urban area has exemplified a big dilemma for rural youth in Uganda. Although the former choice has made a good showing, the duel has only seen one winner. As a result, a mass exodus of young people to urban areas has ensued, carrying with them the dynamism and innovation required to revive the rural economy. Consequently, the lure of city life has made a large number of the youth feel significant disenchantment with working in the agricultural sector.

However, the tide might be shifting as a result of the disruption birthed by the COVID 19 pandemic. Youth interest, involvement and engagement in agriculture is reportedly on the rise. In fact, a couple of organisations across East Africa targeting youth in agriculture have reported a surge and swell of interest from young people in their programs. The interest does not only stem from bodaboda riders who can no longer hold forte as a result of feeling the wrenching effects of lost income, it comes from across the youth demographic including some opportunistic young professionals keen to milk the opportunity of the increased time on their hands. Others are taking advantage of the high demand for nutritious food meant to boost the immunity of the populace and have therefore pivoted to grow indigenous vegetables, some of which take less than a month to mature and harvest.

Nevertheless, their transition back to agribusiness has not been devoid of a multitude of hurdles. In fact, the same crisis that led them to the farm is also responsible for disruptions in agricultural value chains and markets. The same lockdowns and movement restrictions that have curtailed their movement have also in turn rendered it difficult for farmers to access inputs or even sell their produce.

The COVID 19 pandemic alone is not their only cause for concern. The young agribusiness enthusiasts have also had to shake off the recent spike in seasonal rainfall in parts of East Africa that has caused widespread flooding.  As if that was not deadly enough, others are also grappling with a locust plague of biblical proportions that has torn across East Africa devastating fields, pastures and livelihoods and also eating away farmers’ profits.

The youth are re-discovering the pleasure of farming and the Corona Virus pandemic might have been a game changer in attracting them to agriculture. However, to harness this upsurge of youth interest and involvement, a comprehensive package of support to nurture this engagement is imperative. In the light of this unique situation, the following three recommendations are suggested.

First, since most of these youth join the craft on the backdrop of limited agriculture skills and knowledge, training and capacity building should be prioritized. In this regard, it would be wise to tap into educational programmes that emphasise ‘learning by doing’ such as Farmer Field schools to provide the youth with the much needed practical skills and insights. This upskilling would also be essential in limiting the possible negative impacts of the youth’s lack of experience in farming. Moreover, pairing the training with business support and incubation would further aid the youth to take a business approach to farming thus allowing them to take full advantage of the business opportunities that exist across the value chain – not just in production.

Furthermore, as the youth continue to grow their agribusinesses, access to finance will be of critical importance to propel the agribusinesses to scale. However, access to financial resources will only deliver full benefits when coupled with financial literacy. Therefore, a key recommendation would be to couple access to financial services with training on business development, financial management and investment pitching. Over and above that, access to insurance schemes would be instrumental in protecting the agri-prenurs against loss due to adverse natural events that negatively affect production.

Lastly, the youth would benefit a great deal from a helpful, guiding hand in their agri-prenurship journey. Mentorship should therefore be explored to allow the youth obtain fresh perspectives, expand their networks but most importantly allow the young farmers to have an enabling environment to get the support that they need. On a macro-level, recognizing and documenting individuals that have made outstanding contributions in the agricultural sector would provide role models that inspire the young farmers and thereby aid to sustain their farming enthusiasm.

Without a youth inclusive response to rural development that prioritises mentorship, financial access as well as training and capacity building, the recent forays made in attracting, engaging and retaining youth in the agricultural craft might all be rendered an act in futility.

The corona virus pandemic might have been a good turn in fortune where one crisis might have prevented another – a rather silent but also devastating crisis of a lack of young people who can be entrusted with feeding the burgeoning world population now and in the years to come. However, without an augmented approach to take advantage of this goodwill, this hope might just turn into hype.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the Future Africa Forum.