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Rural youth, innovation and tradition: the challenge of a new order

The year of 2020 is unprecedented. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, health and agriculture services have continued to operate non-stop. Although the agricultural sector has not had the possibility of a reflective truce, its reinvention is indispensable today. In fact, it is already beginning to take place with young people at the heart of it.

In January 2020, IFAD launched the Rural Youth Innovation Award in Latin America and the Caribbean. Financed by the China-IFAD SSTC Facility, the project maps and promotes youth-led initiatives that pave the way for bottom-up solutions for South-South and Triangular Cooperation in rural development.

The Award brings together the private sector, academia and international organisations to promote effective solutions to challenges faced by smallholder farmers. It also gives a seat at the table for emerging actors that will play a crucial role in challenging times: rural youth.

The response was massive: 570 initiatives were sent by young people from 23 countries in the region. The projects show that rural youth have a true vision for their future.

From Colombia, Sembrando Vida (Seeding Life) was awarded in the Climate Action category and is led by Karem Bejarano. The project that began as a family forestry nursery could have gone unnoticed had Karem not gone further and started reforestation campaigns. So far, Karem has secured the participation of more than 150 families from the region and, even, from other countries.

"This initiative was born out of necessity," says Karem. Convinced that reforestation needs to walk hand-in-hand with social inclusion, the young woman involved the whole community. She aims to generate formal permanent jobs, especially for women heads of household.

The same enthusiasm is shared by the Grupo de Jovens Coletores de Sementes do Cerrado (Cerrado`s Youth Seed Collectors Group). They focus on the reforestation of the Nascentes Geraizeiras Sustainable Development Reserve (RDS), in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais. With 20 per cent of its area degraded, the inhabitants of the region have been working since 2017 to recover their biome with seed collecting and sowing activities.

Nondas Ferreira, the initiative’s representative, shares how their activities generate income and improve quality of life, although it is clear that “the income from trading seeds has to be a means, not an end. The end has to be the ecosystem and water recovery, and the healing of people’s life and dignity”. The activities are carried out collectively by 33 traditional communities, through knowledge exchange and training on land restoration techniques. For the participants, the results are surprising and important for this kind of Reserve, which only exist in two areas of Brazil.

In another Brazilian region, Raiz Capixaba (Capixaba Roots) values the work of small organic producers in the state of Espírito Santo. Since 2018, José Eduardo has been carefully analyze the supply and demand between smallholder farmers and companies. The start-up team have developed a system to track organic agricultural production and offer this information to the private sector in a transparent and direct way.

Today, around 70  companies have responded positively to the initiative. In addition, they benefit around 130 families of producers. "Raiz Capixaba's gaze is from the countryside to the city and not the other way around," said José Eduardo, who works and maintains permanent contact with certified organic producers in his state. A relationship that actually benefits all actors in the region’s food system.

Technology and technical knowledge are also present in the Mexican initiative Hexa Biotech, awarded in the Sustainability category. Since 2014, Gerardo, CEO of the initiative, has been inspired by the insect industry - the entomoindustry - and started research on the black soldier fly.

The team bred, reproduced and recovered lab larvae, and fed them with organic waste. “We separate the waste that can be used to grow the larvae. Some of it can be used to produce fish and chicken rations, besides a great variety of other products”, said Amín, the initiative's biotechnology engineer. Hexa Biotech concept is definitely cutting edge.

These four young people bring together different talents to come up with innovative solutions to address challenges in rural development. And they are not alone, another six awardees also work in different areas to increase rural income and improve living conditions in the countryside.

When the project ends in July 2021, all initiatives will have complemented a mentoring programme and receive training on business strategy, marketing, and sales. They will also take part in exchange meetings with IFAD-funded projects, private partners and development institutions.

The ultimate goal is to replicate the winning initiatives in different countries in the region. It has been a difficult year, no doubt, but by no means a year without a future. A future that is in the hands of rural youth with ideas and ideals.