Apoorva Valli Shankar

Agvocating for a World Without Hunger at the FAO

Hunger. You know it when you feel it: it’s a grumbling in your stomach that leaves you weak, on edge and unable to concentrate. While many of us have easy access to nutritious food, over 815 million people do not. As a delegate at last year’s Youth AgVocate Summit, each day brought reminded me of the pressing need to channel awareness into action on hunger.

Women make up almost half of the global agricultural workforce worldwide, and when these women are empowered, their communities benefit too. Set the challenge of addressing gender inequality in agriculture at the Youth Ag Summit, my project team conceived Agrikua: a digital learning platform to provide rural women with skills-based education, mentorship and financial opportunities. The name Agrikua was coined as the project is being piloted in Kenya and ‘Kua’ in Swahili means growth; so Agrikua literally translates to growth in agriculture.

Due to Agrikua’s unique value proposition, we received 10,000 euros in funding from Bayer, and a promise to be invited back to Europe to showcase our progress. From our home countries as far apart as El Salvador and India, we’ve spent the last year researching, building partnerships, and launching a prototype platform in Kenya, and were thrilled to be offered the chance to present Agrikua to the UN Committee for World Food Security (CFS) in Rome in October. As the United Nations’ forum for reviewing policies on global food security, CFS is the most inclusive international platform and has representation from UN agencies, civil society and the private sector.

Apoorva Valli Shankar, Educator, Youth Ag Summit delegate and Agrikua co-founder
Apoorva Valli Shankar, Educator, Youth Ag Summit delegate and Agrikua co-founder
Apoorva Valli Shankar,
Educator, Youth Ag Summit delegate and Agrikua co-founder

From the moment we arrived, the topic of youth engagement was front and center. Kicking off with a 200 person-strong High-Level Dinner, our Canadian co-founder Cassandra Hayward joined Jesus Madrazo, Head of Agricultural Affairs and Sustainability for the Crop Science Division of Bayer, to deliver an opening speech on behalf of the entire youth delegation. Reflecting on her own experiences growing up food-insecure in Canada, Cassie challenged the audience to think of how they can invite young people into the conversation: “We can no longer accept talking about or at youth without actually including them.”

Cassie’s powerful message set the stage for discussions across the week. As well as observing plenary sessions, attending side events and meeting with Jesus Madrazo to share our progress on Agrikua, we were honored to be invited to a youth debate hosted by His Excellency Hans Hoogeveen, Dutch Ambassador to the UN Organizations for Food and Agriculture. The issue at hand: are low-tech or high-tech innovations more effective in engaging youth in agriculture? My side stressed that low-tech reforms are our most pressing need: with youth access to land, finance and skills education constrained, focusing primarily on high-tech reforms is like building castles in the air! Meanwhile, the high-tech team argued that advanced digital technologies can provide large-scale solutions to food insecurity, and are what’s driving youth into the field. After a dynamic debate, we concluded that both have their place in achieving Zero Hunger – it all comes down to context.

My personal highlight was our own side event, a panel discussion on ‘Challenges and Opportunities for Youth in Agriculture.’ Representing Agrikua with my fellow co-founder Ritchie Save Raphael, we were joined by representatives from 4-H Kenya, Climate Smart Agriculture Youth Network and Nuffield International. As young agvocates, many of us struggle with accessing resources or engaging meaningfully in the policymaking process. A key point raised was the importance of launching a youth committee so that youth is always represented at CFS. While most young people would love to participate in a platform like CFS, more often than not they do not have the means to. Before leaving, we challenged each attendee to mentor a young person in agriculture, and to sign a pledge to make this happen.

My own closing message to our audience was this: “It is not expertise that precedes change; it is awareness. As long as we have the drive to contribute and the commitment to make a change, there is no voice that is insignificant or no action that is too small.” When I look back on the week, I’m filled with a sense of gratitude and amazement – because CFS made me challenge my own beliefs. Before CFS, I assumed that because I am young and from a non-agricultural background, I may not be actively speaking so much as listening. But as we explained our project idea to so many agricultural leaders, I quickly realized how willing people are to listen and support, and how much they appreciate an alternative voice.

I also came to appreciate that every story is different. Sometimes, we hear about a challenge and think ‘Ah! I already know this!’ – but we don’t. Because even if the message at the end of a story is the same, the circumstance shaping that message is different – so it matters to listen. It matters to have that story heard. It matters in understanding context; in reconciling differences; in shaping policy and inspiring action.

Retrospectively, I realize that this is how Agrikua was formed despite so much diversity in context. Our founders come from all over the world, but we shared and we listened, and we came up with a solution. So let’s share our stories, listen to others and take combined action – because every voice, every story and every action matters when it comes to achieving Zero Hunger!

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