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#1 from 2017: Future jobs for youth in agriculture and food systems: Learning from our backyard in DC

Iftikhar Mostafa's picture
Our Top Ten blog posts by readership in 2017. This post was originally posted on March 14, 2017.
When we think of agriculture and food, we think of a farmer working in a rural area producing food for consumption and selling some surplus.  With growing urbanization and increasing demand for food, food system has moved away from just agricultural production. It involves aggregating, value addition, processing, logistics, food preparation, restaurants and other related services.  Many enterprises from small to large are part of the enterprise ecosystem.  The potential for new jobs for youth who start and are also employed by their enterprises is significant. The Africa Agriculture Innovation Network (AAIN) has developed a business agenda targeting establishment of at least 108 incubators in 54 African countries in the next 5 years focusing on youth and women among other actors. At least 600,000 jobs will be created and 100,000 start-ups and SMEs produced through incubation and 60,000 students exposed to learn as you earn model and mentored to start new businesses.

In recent past, there have been many innovations in areas of technology, extension, ICT, education, and incubation leading to new generation of enterprises and enterprise clusters resulting in the creation of good quality and new jobs in agriculture and food systems. A key challenge in the future is how we create more and better jobs in the agriculture and food system value chain. One of the major requirements for creating more jobs is a radical change in the way youth are taught agriculture and entrepreneurship. The skills required for a modern agriculture and food system are of a higher order and need to be upgraded significantly.

As part of the 2017 Global Learning Forum more than 250 staff in the Agriculture Global Practice from around the world are learning how Agriculture and Food Systems are going to look like in future. The group participants visited the Urban Food Hubs Program being managed by the University of the District of Columbia (UDC). The Urban Food Hubs focus on four components: food production, food preparation, food distribution, and waste and water recovery.

The group visited a 20,000 sq. ft. retrofitted green roof with a highly efficient food production system at UDC’s Van Ness Campus in the middle of Washington DC that utilizes bio-intensive, aquaponics, and hydroponic production methods. The roof showcases high revenue plants (e.g. herbs, greens) and high nutrition plants (e.g. tomatoes, peppers, cabbages). Hydroponics refers to growing vegetables in nutrient-rich water rather in soil, and aquaponics refers to a food production system that combines growing fish (aquaculture) and growing vegetables without soil. The group also visited the 143-acre Firebird Farm in Beltsville, Maryland, which has an integrated efficient food production system. The group saw application of sustainable research techniques on the farm. The farm uses solar power in the greenhouses and to run its cold storage.

The second component, co-located with the urban production sites are commercial kitchens that serve as business incubators and training facilities for food processing and nutritional health related activities. Students from the US and other countries are taught urban agriculture and food as a business, by providing small amount of seed money to develop an integrated Urban Food Hub that is connected to the market. Students are able to incubate their ideas and initiate enterprises even before graduation. The Urban Food Hubs create a network of skills, jobs, and entrepreneurs that broadens local food production. With an initial seed money of $10,000, two students at the Firebird Farm were able to develop an integrated food production system as a business, which resulted in generating a revenue of $150,000.

Food distribution in urban neighborhoods includes farmers markets, as well as contracting with local grocery stores and restaurants. The green roof also exemplifies the waste and water management component of the Urban Food Hubs concept. Urban food systems improve water management as plants absorb and filter water; and the permeable surfaces in which they grow prevent water from draining into storm sewers.

UDC’s Van Ness Campus and Firebird Farm provided a vivid picture of the future of jobs in agriculture and food systems underlining entrepreneurships, incubators, high value jobs, and addressing food and nutrition security.  The future of agriculture and food systems is in our backyard and has numerous lessons for many of the countries that grapple with issues of creating high quality jobs for youth.

Reference:  Sabine O'Hara, Food Security: The Urban Food Hubs Solution, The Solutions Journal, Volume 6, Issue 1, January 2015, Pages 42-53 

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