Is urban farming the key to attracting the youth?

Agribusinesses made up two of the four presentations at the recent Lilongwe Pitch Night*. One pitcher, Peggy Nyirongo of Faggy Investments, has a piggery and meat processing business. She also makes organic manure which is packaged and sold in retail outlets. Peggy is looking for investment to expand her farming operation.

Cosmas Katulukira of Tithokoze Farm in Lilongwe
Cosmas Katulukira of Tithokoze Farm in Lilongwe

The guest speaker of the night was Cosmas Katulukira, co-founder of Tithokoze Farm just outside Lilongwe. An accountant by training, Cosmas and his wife Sophie bought a plot of land 10 years ago and have successfully established a thriving horticulture business. Tithokoze supplies vegetables and fruits to Food Lovers Market and Shoprite as well as hotels in Lilongwe.

A few greenhouses on Tithokoze Farm. Agribusiness
Greenhouses on Tithokoze Farm. They grow onions, tomatoes, vegetables and fruit.

One interesting topic that Cosmas brought up on the night was about the youth and farming. He explained that once he was invited to give a talk to a group of young men and women on agribusiness. While 25 of them confirmed their attendance, on the day only four rocked up. He gave his talk anyway.

On another occasion, Cosmas had taken his sick daughter to a clinic in town. The nurse attending to her asked what she would like to be when she grows up. She said a farmer. “Nde udzakalamba nsangatu! (you will age very quickly)” was the nurses response.

Farming in Malawi has for a long time been considered an occupation of the rural folk and a hobby of the aged. A back-breaking effort to harvest as many bags of maize as possible to avoid queuing for the staple at Admarc. Some shy away because if you have one season of less than favourable rainfall, you could be left with heavy farm input debts. But many don’t see the numerous business and job creation opportunities it presents.

Cosmas shared names of a few people who have inspired him on his farming journey. He mentioned Josephine Kizza, a Ugandan secondary school teacher who had such farming success she turned her farm into an agricultural college. He also mentioned Geoff Buckley and Jim Rogers. Closer to home, businessman and philanthropist Napoleon Dzombe got a special mention. Dzombe is well known for his interests in sugar production and rice processing in the central lakeshore area.

Urban Farming

One person Cosmas mentioned would perhaps inspire even the most reluctant person to consider agribusiness as a viable career. Curtis Stone, an urban farmer, is an interesting guy. Living in Canada, Curtis owns Green City Acres but uses very little land to generate close to $100,000 a year. He uses his backyard and a couple other people’s backyards to grow high demand, early maturing, high yield and high price vegetables. ‘Making profit off leased and borrowed land’ as he puts it. In total, he uses only a quarter of acre in total, most of it lent to him by neighbours. And this is all in an urban setting. Watch the video below to see how he works (if you can’t watch the video, visit his website).

Now get me right here. I don’t expect any Malawian to generate K73 million from backyard farming. What I think would be of interest is the fact that many of our backyards or yet to be developed plots in town are left overgrown, used to grow maize for only four months in a year or are generally put to very little productive use. So business opportunities are literally staring us in the face.

I am no horticulture expert but read widely as well as visited well setup establishments. I am also an aspiring small livestock and mushroom farmer with some training under my belt. For a few years, I  co-managed an 11 acre farm growing maize, beans and pigeon peas and a few odd broiler chickens. So I have some experience, if I can say so myself.

Get the youth involved

My point is that young farmers can enjoy the pleasures of urban life while getting their fingers dirty engaging in urban farming. No need to set up shop miles out of town in the sticks with patchy internet coverage, hardly any social life and the potential for tricky land disputes.

We all have a cousin or auntie or neighbour who would gladly lease out a few square metres of backyard space to an enthusiastic young startup farmer. In return the landlord would get a bunch of spinach and five tomatoes a week or a tray of fresh eggs a month. Add to that, these cousins and aunties all throw away a few litres of gray water and kitchen waste each day that can be collected to irrigate the plants and nurture the soil.

Partners Makutu makes an average net profit of R1400 (K78,000) per month from his chicken tractor. farming © Guy Stubbs
Partners Makutu makes an average net profit of R1400 (K78,000) per month from his chicken tractor- a small, portable chicken house. © Guy Stubbs

We have the means to stop importing foodstuffs as a country. Katulukira said it well “Let’s import medicines, not agricultural products”. One way to achieve this is getting more people to produce food right in our backyards to feed a growing urban population. And the youth of this country can ably assist in that effort. But only once they understand that there is money to be made from farming. And fun to be had while doing it!

*Lilongwe Pitch Night, a flagship programme of mHub, is a platform developed for entrepreneurs to establish a vibrant and sustainable entrepreneurial eco-system in Malawi.