Since 1997, researchers at the University of Sussex have monitored global trends in armed conflict. Their research clearly shows that in Africa, over the last 10 years, armed conflict has gone up by sevenfold. Let's think about that: sevenfold in a single decade. Why is this?
We believe, as oxygen is to fire, so are unemployed youth to insecurity. We have a lot of youth on this continent. Youth like Sandra, who, on a Saturday morning in March 2014, woke up excited at the prospects of getting a coveted job at the Nigerian Immigration Services. She kissed her daughter goodbye, left her home, never to return. Sandra and 15 other young Nigerians died that day, applying for a job, in the ensuing stampede, as tens of thousands of people applied for a few thousand open positions.
In the last 20 years, 20 million youth have entered the Nigerian workforce alone. Today, half our population is under the age of 18. That's almost 80 million people that will be entering the workforce in the next 20 years. My friends, if a wave of 20 million people entering the workforce triggered Niger Delta crisis, Fulani herdsmen crisis and Boko Haram, I ask you: What will four times that number do?
To do my part to solve this challenge, in 2012, I moved to a small village in northern Nigeria, in the center of the area most recently hit by the spread of insecurity, brutal bombings and searing poverty, with an idea: Could we create an economic buffer to halt the spread of this insecurity, by unlocking the power of agriculture as a job-creation engine?
We knew this had been done before in countries like Thailand, where, in 1980, they suffered from the same economic challenges as us. Today, however, Thailand produces two million cars a year—more than the United Kingdom—with over 30 percent of its workforce as highly commercial, profitable small farmers, with an unemployment rate of less than one percent. How did they do this? In the 80s, Thailand dramatically improved the productivity of its small farmers, ensuring that it was able to start to dominate export markets for produce. Building on this strength, they attracted investment and started to process, being able to export higher-value products like starch from cassava. Finally, coupled with investment in education, they started to expand to even higher-value manufacturing. To make our idea a reality and follow a path similar to Thailand, we knew that we would have to sell young farmers on farming.
A young man in northern Nigeria, for the purpose of today's discussion, we'll call "Saminu," made it very clear to me that this would not be easy. Saminu grew up in a beautiful village in northern Nigeria. And he tells wondrous stories of playing for hours with his friends, running up and down the beautiful rock formations that dot the countryside around his home. Despite this beauty, Saminu knew that the first chance he got, he would leave. He did not want to be a farmer. Growing up, he saw his parents work so hard as farmers, but barely get by. As he says, they had "babu"—nothing.
Young farmers like Saminu do not have access to the cash to buy the farming products to pair with their hard work to be successful. When their meager harvest came in, desperate for cash, they would sell most of it at fire-sale prices, when, if they could just wait six months, they could get 50 percent more. Hence, Saminu left to the city, where he soon realized that life was not easy. He borrowed a very old motorcycle, with tires that were more patches than tires, to become a motorcycle taxi driver. He lived in constant fear every day that his precious, tattered motorcycle would be ripped away from him, as it had before. But he got it back, thankfully. He knew of others, however, who were not so lucky—other young men who, once they'd lost their motorcycles, became destitute. Angry, these young men set out to wreak vengeance on a society that they believed had turned its back on them. Saminu told me that they joined insurgent groups, often acting as getaway drivers in bombings and kidnappings.
To end this cycle of insecurity, we must make farming a viable choice. We must ensure that these young men, on their small farms, can earn enough money to make a life for themselves; to make a future. The question now is how. Recognizing that Africa has grassroot-level leadership, we simply developed a model to bring the professional management and investment to scale to these grassroot leaders. We called it "Babban Gona"—"great farm" in Hausa.
Upon reaching the village in 2012, I traveled from community to community, trying to convince people of our idea, trying to recruit farmer members. We failed woefully that first year, barely recruiting 100 brave souls. But we persevered. We kept doing what we promised, slowly we gained their trust. More farmers joined us. Fast-forward now five years. With a passionate and committed team and the tremendous support of our partners, we grew dramatically, today, serving 20,000 small farmers, enabling them to double their yields and triple their net income relative to their peers. We are very proud of the fact—
Fast-forward three years, Saminu has earned enough money to buy three goats for his mother to start a goat-rearing business, owns his own retail store and bought not one, but two motorcycles, with vanity license plates: "Babban Gona."
My friends, in the next 20 years, over 400 million Saminus are entering the African workforce, with potentially half of them having opportunities in agriculture. To unlock these opportunities, through models similar to ours, they would require 150 billion dollars a year in financing. This is a big number. But if we can tap into commercial debt, it is a small number—only 0.1 percent of all the debt in the world today, 10 cents out of every 100 dollars. This is why we designed our model to be very different from conventional agricultural development programs. In a few short years, we have shown that our model works, is high-impact and can turn a profit, attracting commercial investors that do not typically invest in small farmers in Africa.
Imagine a world where millions of young men across Africa, hardworking young men, have other options. I know these driven, ambitious young men will make the right choice. We can realize this dream if they have a choice.