These five Caribbean youth farmers are redefining cool

Globally, the need to attract young people to the agricultural sector has become ubiquitous. From the United States, where the average age of a farmer is 57, to Japan, where the average age is 67, factors such as urbanization and high start-up costs have led to an aging crisis with implications for food security. For some countries, attracting young blood to the sector is a matter of survival. In the Caribbean, for example, where 80% of all food is imported and farmers are at the mercy of the environment due to climate shocks, innovation, technical knowledge and fresh energy have become a necessity.

But crisis conditions have a way of bringing about change. And across the region, there is a growing movement of young, dynamic agro-entrepreneurs who are not only successful in farming, but are also influencing their peers to get involved. Regional stakeholders are also involved, identifying emerging agribusiness leaders and helping them expand their reach to attract more young people to the sector.

Suddenly Caribbean agribusiness looks a lot sexier, and not that old.

“In order to bring about a real change in youth engagement in agriculture, there is a rethinking, a paradigm shift in the way we look at and interact with young people,” said Carla Barnett, Secretary General of the Secretariat of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) at the launch of “I Am Agriculture: Youth in Agriculture”, a CARICOM social media campaign developed with the support of the United Nations World Food Programme.

“Caribbean youth have responded to the call for food and nutrition security through the region’s initiative to embrace 25 by 2025,” said Shawn Baugh, program manager of agriculture and agroindustry development at the CARICOM Secretariat, of the push to limit food imports from outside the region and reduce the $5 billion food import bill in the Caribbean by 25% by 2025.

“Our young CARICOM farmers have demonstrated their commitment to transforming the agri-food system by adding technology and digitalization to improve production, productivity and trade. Ideally, make agriculture sustainable, efficient, profitable and attractive.”

The new generation of Caribbean farmers is skilled, smart, stylish, technical and under thirty-five. Goodbye grandpa in overalls! Here are five young Caribbean farmers who are resisting the traditional image of farmers.

Toni Ann Lalor: Jamaica

“I am a farmer; essentially I am a woman,” reads a recent message from agro-entrepreneur, actress, model, teacher, and philanthropist, Toni-Ann Lalor to her 48.1k Instagram followers.

Lalor, better known as Jamaica’s “Farm Queen,” earned that title in 2019, at the age of 24, when she entered the Miss Jamaica World pageant, taking home the “Beauty with a Purpose” award.

As the owner and operator of Toni’s Fresh Produce, Lalor regularly posts images of colorful fruits and vegetables — sweet potato, carrot, watermelon, pumpkin, yam, bell pepper, tomato, and melon — that she grows herself.

Lalor is an advocate for the economic potential of agriculture, especially among young people, and is living proof that farming is not a job for the elderly or the unskilled. On the contrary, Lalor was able to pay for her studies for a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree with income from her farm.

In 2022, Lalor competed against 53 other contestants and won the Miss United Nations World title in India. Her platform was food sovereignty and hunger reduction.

Speaking of her win, Lalor told the Jamaica Observer newspaper: “This fits so well into my larger plan to rename agriculture to attract young people. We need to start this conversation to make it more attractive by looking at issues like food security, innovation and technology.”

“She never forgot she was a farmer,” said Jamaican Agriculture and Fisheries Minister Pearnel Charles Jr. “She told the world, ‘Look how beautiful a farmer can be’ and that means a lot to me, my daughter and other young people watching.”

John Jones: Barbados

“I give away more than 25 different crops to anyone who wants to grow here in Barbados. Let’s grow together,” read a recent one Tweet from farmer John Jones, whose image of an impressive seed library garnered nearly 700 likes from his burgeoning fan base.

The 30-year-old director of Thirteen Acre Farms Ltd has become a bona fide Bajan celebrity since acquiring his own farm 18 months ago, and aims to lower his country’s food import bill by growing crops such as broccoli, which Barbados imports exclusively. He also hopes to open farms across the Caribbean that will support the region’s 25 Initiative by 2025.

Jones, a well-traveled former college basketball star who graduated from Illinois State University with a Bachelor of Science degree in Agribusiness, wants to promote involvement and participation in the production of Barbados’ local food. For over a year he has been providing hands-on training in agriculture to both children and adults.

“Teaching my own people to farm and sharing my knowledge has always been a big deal for me,” he says. “Let’s all grow together.”

Alpha Sennon: Trinidad and Tobago

A 35-year-old “FarmerPreneur” and agri-business graduate of the University of the West Indies, Alpha Sennon is both a farmer and a social entrepreneur on a mission to inspire the region’s youth to become interested in farming.

As founder and executive director of the award-winning NGO WHYFARM, Sennon aims to “contribute to achieving food and nutrition security through innovation, creativity and agripreneurship.”

In line with this mission, Sennon created the world’s first and only food and nutrition security superheroes: “AGRIman” and “Photosynthesista”, the protagonists of the AGRIMAN AGventures comic series sold throughout the Caribbean.

Sennon and WHYFARM have received support from The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Kirchner Impact Foundation, Thought For Food Foundation, and Digicel.

In 2022, Sennon joined the class of 50 NEXT, as one of the world’s top 50 pioneering activists, and was named by Ashoka as one of the world’s leading social entrepreneurs and thought leaders, receiving Trinidad & Tobago’s first-ever Ashoka Fellowship for social received entrepreneurship.

Teesha Mangra Singh, Guyana

Teesha-Mangra Singh, 27, from Guyana, is the CEO of President Dr. Irfaan Ali’s Agriculture and Innovation Entrepreneurship Program (AIEP), which offers agro-entrepreneurs between the ages of 18 and 35 the opportunity to grow a variety of high-value crops in the convenience of government-built climate-smart shade houses. The program, which started in January 2022, is an important part of the government’s agribusiness strategy.

Mangra-Singh, who has an agriculture degree from the Guyana School of Agriculture and a bachelor’s degree in agriculture from the University of Guyana, recalls that people initially tried to discourage her from entering the male-dominated industry, but her love of nature, animals and farming pay off. She now devotes her time to encouraging other women and youth to join the burgeoning agricultural sector and was a recent speaker at Guyana’s Women and Youth Agriculture Symposium.

“We need young people in agriculture because they are the largest shareholder of our population, and we need food to bring us closer to security,” Mangra-Singh told local news channel, the Guyana Times. “Our whole farm is climate smart and we use innovative practices because we understand that young people are more comfortable with technology and more inclined to work with innovative practices than with traditional farming, where you have to go out in the sun.”

Anastasha Elliott: St. Kitts and Nevis

Anastasha Elliott is an agro-entrepreneur who adds value to her country’s organic and native plant and marine ingredients through her company, Sugar Town Organics.

Sugar Town Organics is a health and wellness company that Elliott started in 2004 that specializes in ethical products made from natural ingredients usually sourced from her garden, the neighboring mountains, or from an organic herb farm in her community.

Sugar Town Organics’ beauty brands, Yaphene and Marapa skincare, feature “Caribbean food infused” vegan skin, hair and body care products inspired by traditional beauty practices, herbal remedies, food and culture of the Caribbean, while Baba Lullaby is Sugar Town Organics natural baby skin care line.

Flauriel, Elliott’s food and beverage brand, makes wines, spices, snacks and other products featuring Caribbean products and traditional customs. For example, Flauriel Soursop Jelly is made from the freshly squeezed juice of soursop harvested straight from Elliott’s garden.

Elliott is passionate about the role of natural remedies in maintaining good health and wellness – and she is just as passionate about entrepreneurship.

The future

Youth agricultural entrepreneurship in the Caribbean is the best choice for the region for a more resilient future, particularly in the context of climate change and the cost of living and supply chain challenges experienced globally since 2020.

Traditional farming rules typically fail to take into account the new realities associated with climate change, such as unpredictable weather patterns, prolonged droughts and the increase in the frequency of extreme weather events. An old and aging workforce and manual processes may not be able to adapt as quickly to rapidly changing global conditions.

“We have to look at solutions that the youth has to offer. We need to listen to the youth and identify some of the solutions. Now more than ever, young people must be part of the solution to the various challenges we have discussed,” said Regis Chapman, Representative and Country Director at the World Food Program Multi-Country Office for the English- and Dutch-speaking Caribbean.

Youth involvement in agriculture is critical to achieving inclusive and sustainable economic growth, employment and decent work (UN Sustainable Development Goal 8). Agriculture also provides a pathway to youth empowerment, poverty alleviation and food and nutrition security. It is time for young, fresh energy to revive a sector that currently only covers 20% of the region’s food demand – for a true entrepreneur, this is an opportunity.

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