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Connecting young producers with private sector leaders is key to prosperous and sustainable food systems

19 May 2021
By Nono Sekhoto

A decade ago, I gave up a successful career as a wealth manager to become a commercial farmer. Though my decision to leave behind a lucrative career path may run counter to the aspirations of many young Southern Africans – indeed for anyone young and educated anywhere in the world – I’ve never looked back with a sense of regret.

It was my passion for numbers that led me towards Financial Services, where I worked for PSG Konsult and Investec Bank over a seven year period. But I also loved working with people, and so finding my calling to take on my family’s farming business has been the most rewarding and enriching experience of my life.

From the very start, I’ve approached farming with the business mindset as I was able to leverage off my financial background. Above all, I was able to transfer my entrepreneurial spirit to food production.

When the BBC approached me for tips for young farmers, I outlined my top five priorities for young entrepreneurial food producers starting in the sector: (i) Find a mentor; (ii) Have a business plan; (iii) Learn new skills; (iv) Connect with other farmers, and; (v) Keep records.

I truly believe that being a food producer in Southern Africa can be a compelling career choice for any young person with the ambition and drive to make it a success. In fact, I think this can be true in any part of the world.

But agricultural production and food systems need to be transformed if they are to offer young people a viable livelihood and a brighter future, as we start to rebuild our economies and communities after the hammer blow of COVID-19.

A recent ‘Dialogue’ for the upcoming United Nations Food Systems Summit – for which I was thrilled to join as a keynote speaker – was a timely reminder that delivering a more sustainable global food system requires partnerships above all.

These partnerships need to deliver not only the innovation and nature-positive practices needed, but a novel, dynamic approach to business that can make food production a viable career for current and future generations of producers.

Faced with rising food insecurity around the world – driven by climate change and the pandemic – the UN Secretary General has convened the Food Systems Summit as a first-of-its-kind opportunity to develop a new vision for our global food systems, securing new commitments from both the public and private sectors to invest more in food production, and developing new policies that support agricultural innovation.

To ensure an inclusive agenda, the UN Secretary General also called for a series of ‘Dialogues’ to build momentum towards the summit. Last month, I was thrilled to join fellow food producers from around the world in a Dialogue hosted by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), Wageningen University & Research, the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) and the Just Rural Transition.

As an independent ‘producers’ Dialogue, it was an opportunity to join farmers from around the world in advocating for the importance of producer voices in high-level policy decisions. I was joined by a French wine grower, an Ohioan corn farmer, an Austrian organic farmer, a Brazilian agronomist and a Colombian biologist who oversees ‘climate smart villages’ – quite the collection of diverse voices, but who all spoke to the importance of producer engagement in food systems transition.

Organised as part of the WBCSD’s Virtual Liaison Delegate Meeting for 2021, our mission in the Dialogue was threefold: Showcase positive examples of farmer-led initiatives that aim to sustainably transform our food and agricultural systems; encourage engagement between producers, the agribusiness sector and other key stakeholders, and finally; generate recommendations and entry points for the inclusion of farmers’ voices in the global conversation around food system transformation.

As we covered a wide range of topics, from climate smart agriculture, to soil carbon and access to finance, what struck me from our conversations was the need for connection. As someone who has broken down barriers and bridged the worlds of international finance and local family farming, I know first-hand that connections make us stronger.

We need more plentiful and creative ways of connecting young farmers to one other, and to the knowledge and skills needed to run a farm as a thriving business.

We need more effective ways of connecting bright young minds to innovations that are novel and new, but are also oftentimes rooted in deep indigenous knowledge of nature and landscapes that can be passed down through the generations.

Perhaps above all, we need more ways to connect farmers to sustainable finance and private sector leaders, so that young producers can access the finance and mentorship needed to grow into competent and confident leaders of business.

It’s vital the UN Food Systems Summit fosters common spaces for producers and private sector representatives to listen, learn, and make valuable connections. Because the task of creating prosperous and sustainable food systems cannot fall on producers alone. Private sector leaders need to take their seat at the table, ready to implement a food system equitable for all.

This blog was published in partnership with Wageningen University & Research, the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development.

The Just Rural Transition is committed to amplifying diverse producer voices through its Insights series. The views and opinions expressed in this series are those of their author alone, and publication does not represent an endorsement from the Just Rural Transition on the positions expressed.