There are as many threats as there are opportunities and how we see prospects for a peaceful and prosperous future depends on perspectives shaped by experiences, abilities, aspirations, and the willingness to adapt to changing circumstances. Trends worldwide from North to South, East to West suggest the most significant threats facing humankind are made by humans. These are wars and conflicts; political, cultural, and religious divisions, discrimination, poverty, food and water insecurity, irrelevant education curricular, health—all generating criminal activity and societal dysfunction. The history of brutal invasions, catastrophic wars, slavery, and genocide has not made us a more enlightened species. And we continue to destroy the environment, harbouring viruses deadly to us but necessary to ecosystem sustainability, so evidently, the disastrous impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has yet to teach us lessons. Of course, we can never be totally prepared for the consequences of natural disasters.
Here, the biggest threat is not crime but political polarisation because the unity necessary for meaningful progress is virtually non-existent and we see the effects every day. We’re a small country, more vulnerable than most to the consequences of tumultuous disasters. Still, there are opportunities to build pathways toward food security, health, education, and economic diversification.
The worldwide effects of sanctions in response to the illegal invasion of Ukraine heightened the urgency for food security. In this context, the Government’s Youth Agricultural Homestead Programme is interesting. It has the potential to create opportunities for youth employment, succession in a sector with an ageing population, and expand agriculture’s contribution to Gross Domestic Product. The agriculture sector provides excellent opportunities to sustain livelihoods and reduce poverty and the many problems arising from high incidences of poverty, so it’s wise to expand youth involvement in the sector.
The current food import bill is approximately $5.0 Billion, with the importation of vegetables and fruits accounting for about $1.0 Billion. Strategic and dedicated efforts to grow agriculture and agro-processing industries could considerably reduce those bills.
Traditionally, agriculture has been stereotyped as a backbreaking manual, low-income activity and not the bedrock of human survival. Strategic educational initiatives are necessary to remove the stigma, and it will make sense to introduce upper primary and secondary school students to the wonders and benefits of agriculture, not solely as planting crops and raising animals, but as a financially and intrinsically rewarding activity, providing food, clothing, medicine, and excellent employment opportunities. All too often, prejudices get in the way of progress. When programmes are pitched as “good for students who are not academically inclined,” we miss the broader picture of national esteem, equity, and equality of opportunity. Modern technology is not only serving to reduce historic problems including water, biosecurity risks, praedial larceny, manual labour, and limited land but to increase output, quality rural and urban lifestyles. Motivational social marketing strategies are necessary to change mindsets toward the vital sector.
Coming out of the roadmap for recovery post the COVID-19 pandemic, the Government had allocated in the 2021 Budget a $500 Million Stimulus Programme for the sector geared toward the production and marketing of selected high-demand short-crops by youth and women agricultural entrepreneurs. The Agriculture Homestead initiative features three progressive phases—apprentice training, infrastructure development, and business advisory and support services. Successful graduates of the apprenticeship programme would receive a one-year licence to occupy a homestead land and a start-up grant of $20,000 to assist in covering the cost of inputs. After one year of successful performance, the licensee would be considered for a 30-year lease.
The potential of the venture is enormous. It targets youths 18-35 years, giving 200 participants access to land, housing, working capital, equipment, and technical resources annually. The framers recognised the challenges young people would face if they were to make successful ventures into the agricultural business. They will receive $1,600 monthly, two-acre plots, and starter homes costing approximately $180,000.
It will be wise to build into the system participants’ obligation to make small repayments after the first harvests. Those monies could be used to benefit future participants, otherwise, the Government will effectively undermine the purposes of the venture to foster youth entrepreneurship, agricultural expansion, and sustainable livelihoods. And leases should prohibit selling, subletting of lands and homesteads and usage other than for agriculture. Efficient monitoring will be essential.
The Agriculture Homestead programme could be a light for the future of agriculture.