MANY interventions by African governments and development organisations have failed to make a difference in several communities due to poor problem definition from inception.
Massive dams and irrigation schemes have been set up for growing exotic food when communities need simple equipment for harvesting abundant underground water and surface water to produce indigenous food.
Hybrid crops and livestock have been introduced in dry regions when a market for small grains and indigenous poultry that grow naturally in these communities is the real need. When such external programmes end, communities often go back to their tried and tested ways of doing things.
Do we really understand the problem we are trying to solve?
Once the problem statement is clear, it becomes easy to flesh out strategic interventions and pathways for addressing the problem.
For instance, with regard to African food systems, to what extent do youths and women face the same financial challenges in the community or across the whole country? Is it true that mass food markets are driven by women and youths? Is it true that systems for monitoring and evaluating contribution by youths and women to agriculture and food systems are missing across Africa?
Answering these questions is a key part of problem definition that builds a basis for monitoring and evaluating impact.
For organisations specialising on gender issues, can gender still be treated as a stand-alone intervention or the issue is more about tackling bigger questions around who contributes to African food systems and who has more influence on consumption patterns?
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It is now known that women contribute more to agriculture and food systems and it is also clear that the future of African agriculture and food systems is in the hands of the youths as consumers and tomorrow’s leaders.
What shortfalls and lessons learnt from conventional agriculture and food systems can youth be supported to address?
What are the existing succession pathways within food systems for youths and young women to take over? Who do we target when building African food systems in order to strengthen food sovereignty? To what extent are youths and young women worried about food sovereignty (whether food is imported or produced locally)? Or maybe they are more concerned with how nicely food is prepared irrespective of origin and nutritions, among other parameters.
To what extent are there links between the academic education, in which youths spend much of their time, and knowledge about African food systems, mostly found in undocumented indigenous knowledge systems?
Addressing the problem
Ideally, the strategy to address the problem is also the methodology for solving the problem. To what extent can jumping to set up income-generating project for youths and women be a sustainable solution when there is no market? Or a much bigger solution is needed.
If graduates are unemployed, does it make sense to try and create employment for them or it is better to focus on bigger solutions like lobbying government policy to set aside land for youth where they can practise their knowledge and passion?
If youths are passionate about trading food commodities in African mass markets but lack working space and end up working as employees for elders, the solution is availing working space for youths and young women so that they do what they have passion for.
A critical part of the strategy can be developing frameworks for positioning youths and women so that their contribution can be recognised, their work supported and protected.
Most solutions are within communities, so, in addition to building a strong foundation and systems, part of the viable solution can include identifying leaders and mentors at local level who can drive implementation including tapping into ancestral or traditional ways of addressing issues.
Working with the marginalised youths and young women to realise their strengths and raise their self-esteem or revive their hopes does not have to be logframe-driven, but resort to qualitative indicators through which the marginalised feel good after telling their stories.
What type of indicators can be used to revive a frustrated community that has lost hope? Some youths who may be blaming themselves for bigger macro issues like unemployment end up finding solace in drugs.
At what level are youths and women being neglected?
The problem statement should also articulate and understand the level at which women and youths think they are being neglected in the food system.
In most cases, if the marginalised are airing their views, their voices are full of anger for being neglected for a very long time.
Part of addressing the situation and getting their buy-in is asking them how they think they can be assisted to unlock value from existing natural resources.
It may not be appropriate to start by proposing finance or income-generating projects.
A number of income-generating projects have been introduced in several African communities and countries but there is no evidence of success although millions of dollars have been spent on such efforts.
Rather than throwing money at youths and young women, a better starting point can be addressing group dynamics.
If group dynamics are addressed, youths may come together to form a large abattoir enterprise.
Some may be producing surplus commodities, but failure to work together as a group impedes their capacity to collectively construct a simple bridge that can make it easy for them to take their commodities to the market.
Positioning youths and women within food systems and value chains can see their work protected and their contribution recognised.
Once their contribution is recognised, youths and women become less vulnerable to exploitation.
Capacitating them to become competitive where others have acquired resources to keep youth marginalised is a critical intervention.
This could involve opening their eyes to the fact that salaries and wages are deliberately designed to keep youth and young women indecently employed so that they are not able to build enough savings to start their own enterprises.
This is the same way contract farming models are designed to keep young farmers employed by contractors instead of accessing land and capital to be able to operate their own agri-businesses.
How can African governments liberate young farmers from contractors who are driven more by profit than uplifting youths and women?
Such questions can be answered at discussion platforms where alternative opportunities for youths can be explored before interventions are introduced. Thorough baselines can surface useful information on these key issues.
Socio-economic and political issues interconnection
A carefully thought and well-designed problem statement approach is informed by socio-economic and political monitoring, evaluation and impact framework because all these issues are intertwined in most African countries.
For instance, social issues like drug abuse are linked with economic and political issues.
Economically empowered youths will not have time to participate in polarising politics.
On the other hand, economic power can raise their ambition to be political leaders who can positively influence future socio-economic decisions.
There should come a time when target groups should become depoliticised to realise that it is not only politics that can drive their future.
If new mindsets are not cultivated, youths and women will continue thinking that politics is to blame for most of their challenges including unemployment yet answers may be in unlocking their soft skills.
Through a clear problem statement, platforms for recognition will assist in building strong foundations on food systems and climate change.
This will enable youths and young women to protect their food systems so that future generations do not continue to depend on foreign food.
Charles Dhewa is a proactive knowledge broker and management specialist