ROME, July 12 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A motorbike and reliable connectivity to watch football and chat on WhatsApp are the key to keeping young Africans in farming, a senior United Nations official said, as large-scale urban migration threatens food production on the continent.
Africa already spends $35 billion a year on importing food for its growing population despite having 65 percent of the world's uncultivated arable land, and that figure is predicted to swell to $110 billion by 2025.
That makes it crucial to keep young Africans in agriculture, experts say, but the challenges of rural life mean they are instead deserting farming to find work in cities.
"In today's world, when we talk about rural transformation, my best example is that the youngsters need to make sure WhatsApp is working," said Gilbert F. Houngbo, president of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD).
"This is almost non-negotiable," said Houngbo, the former prime minister of Togo, in an interview with the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
WhatsApp is the most popular messaging app in Africa, according to the Global Digital Report 2018.
Many young Africans see farming as an unattractive option as the industry grapples with climate change, unreliable electricity supplies, poor infrastructure and barriers to land ownership and finance, experts say.
Houngbo said showing agriculture can be a profitable, respectable business was key to keeping young people in farming, but that would not be enough to stop them migrating.
"(It is) whether or not the rural people have the access to watch the TV for the Monday football game ... Their ability to have their motorbike, and in two hours or three hours, get to the city and come back in the evening," he said.
"It's not just agriculture."
Africa has the world's youngest population with more than 400 million people between 15 and 35, but unemployment is high.
Between 10 and 12 million young people a year enter the workforce, but just 3.1 million jobs are created, according to the African Development Bank.
IFAD is a U.N. agency that works with small-scale producers to improve incomes and reduce hunger through grants and low-interest loans. Half its projects are in Africa.
Houngbo called for better infrastructure to connect cities to the countryside and for technology to be made more accessible and affordable, saying young people were not naturally inclined to leave rural areas.
"What I've noticed is that some of them will remain ... when access to the capital is easy," he said.
"(It's when) the road to access the capital is damaged ... that they're so afraid that once they get to the city, they don't want to go back."
He cited the example of Pape Samba Diane, a Senegalese migrant who struggled to survive in Italy for five years and headed home after hearing of an IFAD project helping farmers.
The migrant-turned-farmer now has his own house and advises others to stay.
Pre-emptive actions can also work, said Houngbo, recalling the mothers he met in Ethiopia who benefited from a small irrigation project sponsored by IFAD, the World Food Programme and the Food and Agriculture Organization.
"The project was focused on women and the three of us were kind of shocked when the ladies said, 'with this, I don't need my family to migrate to Addis Ababa, let alone go abroad'," he said.
If nothing is done, the number of African economic migrants crossing oceans could swell, with the youth population expected to double to over 800 million by 2050, he said.
Reporting By Thin Lei Win @thinink, Editing by Claire Cozens.
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