08/22/2014 05:10 EDT | Updated 10/22/2014 05:59 EDT

Africa's Booming Population Needs Agricultural Innovation

Africa's 600 million hectares of uncultivated land -- more than half the global total -- adds up to a recipe for a better food future. Agricultural innovation, education, and the resulting empowerment of women and girls promises to make the coming population boom a turning point toward truly sustainable development.

Kielburger Blog

Natana Kisemei was 14 and illiterate when her father married her off to an older man. Now 36, she has five children and struggles to feed her family amid a drought and poverty in Kenya's Rift Valley. Her life to this point could well be the story of her continent's future. But there is a promising twist in this familiar narrative makes us believe that her children's lives will be different.

Global hand-wringing over Africa's prospects began anew this month with news that the continent's population may double over the next 35 years -- including almost a billion children where one in eleven will die before age five. The boom threatens to overwhelm Africa's already strained capacity to feed itself, it's said, let alone build a sustainable economy. Families are too big. Farms are too small. Land is too dry. Girls marry too early.

But we've seen a shift in this storyline -- in the lives of people like Kisemei -- through agricultural innovation, education, and the resulting empowerment of women and girls that promises to make the coming boom a turning point toward truly sustainable development.

African farm yields are less than half as productive as those in other regions of the world -- a challenge that actually represents tremendous potential. A year ago, Natana Kisemei joined a program run by Free The Children and sponsored by Canada's PotashCorp. to learn about kitchen gardens, raising hens and growing crops. Today, she harvests kale and arrowroot from a multi-storey garden of polyethylene sacks that minimize the soil and water required. She captures and stores rain water to maximize irrigation for a larger garden filled with beans, onions, corn and other vegetables. And she raises eight hens and four roosters in a coop made of steel and stick.

Drought remains a constant threat, but now most days Kisemei feeds her children a healthy stew with beans and leafy greens. By selling vegetables and eggs, she buys more chickens, sheep and goats. Her neighbours are doing the same, and some are pooling their resources to lease larger tracts of land to create cooperative farms to feed the community more efficiently. Given Africa's 600 million hectares of uncultivated land -- more than half the global total -- it adds up to a recipe for a better food future.

It also leads to the empowerment of women and children that is necessary to ensuring that Africa's population doesn't boom out of control. Observers' biggest fear is that the massive next generation of African children will perpetuate their parents' family sizes. But with her surplus farm income, Kisemei buys school supplies so her (well-fed) children can get an education, and she pays the secondary school fees of her eldest daughter Branice, who is then more likely to have fewer, healthier children of her own. Kisemei is determined to give her children the education she never had, and thanks to her major contribution to the family income, her decision-making power within the household is sufficient to make it happen.

Kisemei's youngest daughter Sein is three years old, chasing chickens around the coop. According to the World Bank, once Sein gets a minimum fifth-grade education, she will be more likely to marry later, have a smaller family, seek medical care for herself and her children, find employment later in life, gain access to credit, and participate in the political life of her community and country. If she and her fellow 1.6 million Kenyan girls complete high school, they would add 10 percent ($3.4 billion) to their country's national income.

Of course, these ground-level impacts are just the beginning for Africa's sustainable development out of its many challenges -- from ethnic divisions and armed conflict, to deep weaknesses in governance, civil institutions and economic infrastructure. But they are the first steps in a long journey fostering a strong population that's capable of tackling those challenges. If well-fed bodies, educated minds and influential women are the building blocks of Africa's future, Natana Kisemei is her continent's cornerstone. Not bad for a former child bride.

Brothers Craig and Marc Kielburger founded a platform for social change that includes the international charity, Free The Children, the social enterprise, Me to We, and the youth empowerment movement, We Day.