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Brave, bold, open: Launching the Youth Agripreneurs Project

This blogpost by Michelle Kovacevic originally appeared on GFAR Blog

When I joined the Young Professionals for Agricultural Development (YPARD) network as mentoring coordinator in February 2015, I hoped to facilitate a mentoring program that helped YPARD members to be brave, be bold and be open.

To be brave because creating a sustainable food system, better youth employment, combating climate change and equalising gender can be tiring and sometimes frightening work.

To be bold because as Albert Einstein said: “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”

To be open because only through sharing ideas and working together will we be able to solve these problems. It is our increasing disconnection from ourselves, each other and nature that kind of got humanity into this mess in the first place.

Through this blog, I want to tell you how I saw all these qualities exemplified in a group of bright young agricultural entrepreneurs—“agripreneurs” who recently started an exciting personal and professional journey with us during the Third Global Conference on Agricultural Research for Development (GCARD3).

Birth of the concept

In January, 2016 Peter Casier, Social Media Coordinator for GFAR, contacted me, sounding particularly excited.

“Michelle,” he said. “Would YPARD consider joining a new project to help young entrepreneurs realize their ideas for a sustainable agricultural future?”

He was talking, of course, about the Young Agripreneurs Project – an initiative to provide financial and social support for young people with awesome ideas through seed funding, mentoring and business development.

“Absolutely!” I responded, not really prepared for what was to come.

Off we then went, launching a call for proposals. We received 428 submissions in just three weeks and we worked around the clock to get them all online for the public vote and jury selection.

Six inspiring finalists were selected and five of them were able to get visas in time to join a kick off workshop in Johannesburg, South Africa during GCARD3.

It would have been easy to design your standard “people-who-are-supposedly-more-knowledgeable-than-you-stand-at-the-front-of-the-room-and-tell-you-things-for-eight-hours” kind of workshop.

But I wanted to design a two-day experience that would inculcate in our young entrepreneurs a sense of adventure and equip them with bravery, boldness and openness to face this adventure together. A 16-hour experience, where they felt safe to reveal who they truly are. Where the conversation would be led by young people about the things that matter most to them. (One of my favourite talks on this issue is “Want to help someone? Shut up and listen!”)

So there we were. Jony, Josine, Nikki, Lillian, Kellyann and myself in the Barcelona room of the Birchwood Hotel with the drums of South African musician Mafikizolo mimicking our nervous but excited heartbeats. (If you have Spotify you can access the workshop playlist here.)

The power of reflection and stories

We started off with an acknowledgement of country and context. These have become really important rituals for my workshops because they help us understand the importance of the place we are meeting and when we are meeting.

In Johannesburg, we learnt of the Khoisan people who were among many indigenous groups dispossessed by colonial rule in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Promoting awareness of and respect for Indigenous culture and knowledge (particularly when it comes to agriculture) is an important part of ending the history of silence and exclusion that has resulted in disadvantage and dispossession of many first nations people today.

During our acknowledgement of context, we spoke of the time in history within which we were meeting. Youth unemployment is at an all time high and human beings are having an unprecedented impact on the planet. Now more than ever do we need to amplify the voices of our young people with great ideas.

From this reflective exercise we jumped straight into a creative activity called the River of Life. I asked each of our entrepreneurs to reflect on a moment that changed their lives and where they were at now in their lives. Their willingness to be so open to sharing powerful and moving stories of transformation and hope really helped to create a safe space right from the beginning. We talked about their expectations of themselves, of each other and of YPARD and GFAR during the next 12 months. It was a great start to being brave, bold and open.

One thing we sometimes forget is the power of food as a way to connect people cross cultures and share stories. And since YPARD is all about young people and food, each agripreneur was encouraged to bring an item of food from their country that was meaningful to them.  During our coffee breaks we shared each other’s food and heard some wonderful stories about barley that gives Ethiopian marathon runners energy, how Filipinos don’t let any food go to waste (even frying up fish skins…which were delicious) and got to try some wonderful sweets made from milk from Nikki’s dairy farm.

Mastering pitching

Daisy Ouya from the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) then ran a session on pitching which culminated in practice pitches by each of the agripreneurs. Daisy along with her colleagues Abby Waldorf and Juliet Braslow (who is also a mentee in YPARD’s face to face mentoring program) have been great supporters of our work with youth for many years and have really helped me understand how crucial it is to master the skill of pitching.

Pitching feeds into everything we do – networking, delivering a presentation, asking for funding, convincing our boss to give us a raise, selling our car. We wanted to help the youth agripreneurs develop their pitch before GCARD3 started so they were able to really introduce themselves with a bang when networking. It was also a great way to start our time together as we got to understand their projects better.

You can learn more about pitching here and here.

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