Alpha Sennon

Special Relationship (Virtual)
Headshot of Fellow Alpha Sennon
Trinidad and Tobago
Elected in 2021
Because of the pandemic, Alpha Sennon was selected by Ashoka as a Special Relationship (Virtual) using an online process.

Introduction

Alpha is confronting the decline of agriculture by changing the narrative of what it means to be a farmer, from a marker of oppression and poverty to a valuable profession and essential contribution to global food security, in order to open young people’s minds to the purpose and power of agriculture.

The New Idea

Alpha is inspiring young people in the Caribbean to value agriculture and explore opportunities in the sector, changing the mindsets of a generation that sees little appeal in farming. Through WhyFarm, he works at the intersection of education, communication, and entertainment to answer the “why” of caring about agriculture in a fun way. He created a comic book superhero, Agriman, to educate young people about the importance of agriculture and challenges them to solve problems related to food security in their communities. WhyFarm produces video series featuring Agriman, distributes his comic books to youth across the world, brings live shows to schools and events, among other multimedia campaigns to raise awareness about issues in agriculture that are tailored for different ages. With Agriman, Alpha is tapping into the power of pop culture to shift perceptions and make agriculture “cool” for a new generation of farmers and “agripreneurs”.

WhyFarm also runs programs for older youth that develop critical skills in the “how” of farming. WhyFarm has developed a long list of agriculture-related courses, including a curriculum for weaving agricultural themes into elementary-level STEM instruction, a Food and Agri Series Course in agribusiness and entrepreneurship, and several online courses for universities in the Caribbean. The organization also runs the Agripreneur Mastermind Challenge: an eight-week competition/mentorship program that challenges “agripreneurs” ages 18-30 to create a business plan to upgrade an existing agricultural product or service, as well as a one-year action plan to address a challenge faced by the sector such as a lack of formal spaces for youth discussions on agriculture. The program trains participants in professional development activities related to ideation, social entrepreneurship, business models, and fundraising, among others.

From superhero comics to professional development programs, the reach of WhyFarm’s multi-channel strategy extends from youth into adulthood to build an expanding ecosystem that grasps the importance of farming. Young leaders across seven countries have been inspired to champion agriculture, becoming ambassadors who spread awareness of the value and viability of careers in agriculture among their peers in a movement to reverse the stigma against farming. Additionally, WhyFarm partners with many other organizations in the agricultural field, including the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), with whom they consult on ways to increase interest and innovation in agriculture in the Caribbean.

The Problem

By 2050, the world’s population is expected to be 9.7 billion people. According to the FAO, we will need to increase food production by 60% between now and then to accommodate this growth. However, 70% of farmers in the Caribbean are over 40 years old, and across the globe, the average farmer is 60 years old. In 30 years, these farmers will be unable to feed our rapidly expanding population. This means that the fate of world food production in the year 2050 is in the hands of youth who are today just 10 years old.

But this generation has little interest in farming. According to Wayne Ganpat, Dean of the Faculty of Food and Agriculture at the University of the West Indies in Trinidad and Tobago, getting youth to pursue careers in agriculture is “an uphill battle.” Ganpat has found that youth in the Caribbean have little interest in farming, as agriculture is stigmatized and viewed as an unattractive career path while the economy of Trinidad and Tobago places greater focus on oil and gas. A 2020 report by the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture noted a lack of motivation and willingness among Trinidadian youth to engage in agriculture due to the poverty, informality, and back-breaking labor associated with farming. As Alpha himself concluded after observing various career fairs across the Caribbean, “agriculture has not been marketed as a professional career.” The negative sentiments attached to agriculture can also be attributed to the Caribbean’s legacy of slavery, with a U.S. government report on agricultural development in the Caribbean noting that a stigma of servitude taints agricultural work in the region.

Another problem is urbanization: by 2030, 60% of the world’s population is projected to live in urban areas. This not only increases the burden of food production, as urban populations consume more processed food—it also pulls young potential farmers away from opportunities in agriculture as they pursue work in cities.

The FAO sums up these problems in their 2014 Youth and Agriculture report: “Unfortunately, many young people do not perceive agriculture as a viable or attractive means of earning a living. The drudgery of low productivity agriculture is simply not attractive to youth, who instead migrate to cities in search of higher productivity and better-remunerated employment.”

Youth also face the barrier of poor technical training, especially in the direction of sustainable agriculture. Conventional farming practices in the Caribbean, largely dependent on harmful chemicals, cause severe environmental damage, with few efforts to transition to sustainable practices. Although there is little data from the Caribbean, one study from the FAO found that young farmers in Africa named “learning digital and technical skills” as their biggest obstacle to a career in farming. Adding to this, agriculture in Trinidad and Tobago is mainly subsistence-based with sparse financial and technical support for agribusiness. Many development organizations around the world such as the International Fund for Agricultural Development and the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture have called for programs that engage and train youth in the agricultural sphere to address this important deficiency.

The Strategy

WhyFarm seeks to impart both the “why” and the “how” of farming to young people across the developing world. To achieve this, Alpha develops programs geared towards youth of all ages, from 9-year-old students to 30-year-old young entrepreneurs, that offer the impetus and technical knowledge for careers in agriculture. In a two-part approach, Alpha balances fun, creative content with important lessons on nutrition, sustainable farming practices, agribusiness, and more. This strategy captures the attention of a young audience with entertaining programs, creating a pathway for inspired youth to grow their knowledge of agriculture, build technical skills, and ultimately reverse the enduring negative stigma against farming.

Alpha’s work with younger children uses art to convey the attractiveness and importance of careers in farming—namely, “the why.” He started by creating Agriman, the world’s first superhero devoted to agricultural problems like food security, to make farming appealing to young children. Agriman and his squad of agriculture-themed superheroes are the protagonists of a multimedia communications strategy that now spans a comic book series, a YouTube video series, social media campaigns, original songs, and branded food products that emphasize local production. The comic book series is available online for free and sold in print, and most leading agricultural institutions in Trinidad and Tobago distribute these comics at their offices. Alpha is currently in talks to develop an Agriman video cartoon series and hopes to release a movie in the future. Offline, Agriman makes visits to schools, career fairs, expos, conferences, and summits to explain the importance of farming. To deepen the educational aspect, Alpha’s STEM in Agriculture project has provided 75 schools with a 10-week curriculum they can use to integrate agricultural themes into their instruction in science, technology, engineering, and math.

Alpha’s unique mix of education and entertainment is central to WhyFarm’s “School Drama Tour and Farm to Table Competition,” a 12-week program for 9- to 11-year-olds. For this project, WhyFarm collaborates with a local youth theater production company to educate primary school students on the global food crisis, farming practices in Trinidad and Tobago, and the value of local produce. During the program, the students learn about the nutritional and economic value of native species like baigan (a type of eggplant), attend farm demonstrations, grow and harvest produce at their school, and design a comic strip with a character that has powers based on their nutritional properties. The comics are entered into a competition and the winner receives a cash prize that is reinvested in experiential learning programs in their schools in areas like environmental conservation, civic engagement, and agriculture. The winning comics from this competition are also integrated into WhyFarm’s growing collection of comic books.

On the practical side, WhyFarm engages youth of all ages in activities that teach them the “how” of farming. After most “why”-focused school visits, students make field trips to Alpha’s farm, where WhyFarm runs more practical farming trainings and helps groups to set up gardens in their schools and communities. This program is known as the “Agrikoolture Kidz Klub”. Alpha also runs a two-month summer camp called the “WhyFarm AgriVenture Project,” an “agricultural adventure” that educates children about food and nutrition security. Building on the success of the school visits, Alpha has recently converted part of his farm into an Agricultural Fun, Museum, and Food Factory Park. This space aims to get visitors of all ages excited about where their food comes from through educational games. and share indigenous agricultural knowledge. The farm currently receives 1,800 visitors per year.

Although many of WhyFarm’s former participants are too young to have decided on a career path, Alpha has observed that some of his older participants have gone on to pursue farming professionally. For example, five of them have chosen to major in agriculture in university. Wayne Ganpat, Dean of the Faculty of Food and Agriculture at the University of the West Indies, says that although he cannot directly link this growth to WhyFarm, he has observed a 10% annual increase in the size of his program over the last few years. For these older students, WhyFarm also runs a lecture series through the University of the West Indies entitled “Grow After Graduation: Food and Agri Series.” The course aims to raise awareness about food security and sustainability topics, as well as build a solid foundation of skills for work in agribusiness. This course is projected to reach 300 individuals per year.

To ensure that youth have the right tools and support to pursue agribusiness professionally, Alpha created the Agripreneur Mastermind Program: an eight-week competition for young professionals ages 18-30. The project aims to find the best young agricultural entrepreneurs on the islands and to encourage collaboration between policymakers and youth-based agricultural organizations. Participants are challenged with creating a business plan to upgrade an existing agricultural product or service, as well as a one-year action plan to address at least one challenge faced by agripreneurs whose solution involves collaboration with specific actors in the public, private, social, and/or academic sectors. For instance, the first cohort developed a plan to create more formal spaces for youth dialogue on agriculture. Throughout the competition, participants receive mentorship and participate in professional development activities related to ideation, social entrepreneurship, business models and pitches, fundraising, communication, networking, and media development, to name a few. Winners receive a cash prize, and their business plans are integrated into WhyFarm’s Best Practices Road Map for Youth Engagement in Agriculture. This document is available online for download by youth across the globe.

The inaugural Agripreneur Mastermind Program took place in 2019 with 13 young participants. This pilot was wildly successful; it has been presented as a case study at four global conferences, and Alpha has received support from the Inter-American Development Bank to scale the program across the Caribbean. Participants in the competition have reported progress in accessing professional development and funding opportunities, evaluating their business export potential, registering their businesses, and securing mentors. Three of them have applied to participate in the U.S. Department of State Young Professional Fellows Program; Export Trinidad and Tobago has indicated their interest in working with three others to evaluate their export opportunities; one participant has secured funding from the Agricultural Development Bank of Trinidad and Tobago; and, four participants have identified and secured their ideal mentors.

Recently, Alpha has expanded his community garden initiative to hospitals, where he and his students plant “medicinal food parks”: vegetable gardens planted outside hospitals to help them alleviate the financial burden of food for their patients and to grow medicinal plants. Together with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Alpha has built four community gardens and he is currently implementing 10 “medicinal food parks” in collaboration with Trinidad and Tobago’s Ministry of Health. A recent grant from the UNDP will allow Alpha to develop two more urban gardens that will impact over 500 residents with fresh food and employ over 50 young people. Additionally, Alpha’s WHYFARMers Collective, a growing network of young local farmers who share ideas and resources to support each other’s ventures, has started to supply Trinidad and Tobago’s largest supermarket with locally grown fruits and vegetables, further empowering local farmers.

With its accessible mass media-based content and valuable partnerships with government agencies, businesses, and international institutions, WhyFarm has been able to rapidly expand programs into seven countries beyond Trinidad and Tobago: Cameroon, Colombia, Haiti, Kenya, Nigeria, Rwanda, and Zimbabwe. In these countries, WhyFarm ambassadors promote Alpha’s goal of engaging youth in agriculture by running summer camps (similar to WhyFarm’s AgriVenture Series), conducting school visits, and distributing Agriman material. In its academic partnerships, WhyFarm develops curricula that are scaled by universities, including a course for the Polytechnic College of Suriname that will impact about 250 students. Moving forward, Alpha looks to build on the success of these existing projects by growing the ambassador program and introducing new university partners. Alpha is also undertaking new projects, including an online video series in collaboration with the Thought for Food Foundation. The course, entitled “Beginner’s Mindset to Engaging Youth in Agriculture,” is expected to reach up to 16,000 people. WhyFarm has also signed an agreement with the FAO to develop and implement a digital agriculture roadmap for the island, which will impact between 150 and 200 farmers.

The Person

Alpha grew up on a farm in Trinidad and Tobago. At first, he found little value in the agricultural chores he was tasked with— “land became a symbol of oppression, rather than freedom,” he says of this experience. Alpha enrolled in college intending to distance himself as much as he could from the world of farming, bouncing from major to major trying to find something he liked. This changed when he took a trip to Jamaica during college and, while touring farms and factories, observed large-scale agricultural production being managed as a business. It was through this experience that he discovered the innovation and potential in agribusiness, realizing that there was more to agriculture than the subsistence farming he had known in Trinidad and Tobago. A dean at his college suggested he explore the field of agribusiness, and three years later, Alpha graduated with first-class honors in that field with minors in Communication and Entrepreneurship.

During his time in college, experiences abroad convinced Alpha of the global nature of the food security problem, as well as the many opportunities for innovation to help solve it. A trip to India exposed him to the potential for modern, sustainable agricultural practices to be implemented in his home country. Studying abroad in Thailand convinced him of the importance of youth voices in innovation and attracting young people to agriculture: “the older you become, the less imaginative you become.” As he began to focus his undergraduate studies around agriculture, Alpha served on an executive committee for agriculture as the Research and Student Development Officer and was named president of the Agribusiness Society.

After college, Alpha began representing the Caribbean as a youth representative for Agriculture and attended several meetings to discuss the challenge of engaging young people in the world of farming. He noticed that senior members of these meetings were recycling the same solutions that had failed to work in the past and were reluctant to implement new ideas that Alpha and other youth ambassadors proposed. It occurred to him that the problem could not be solved by merely rotating through conferences: he needed to communicate and work hands-on with youth from an early age, instilling environmental awareness so that they would one day bring innovative solutions to the table. He recalled from his high school years that farmers were never represented at career fairs, and he saw this as the first step towards communicating to young people that agriculture is a viable profession. And thus, Agriman and WhyFarm were born.

Since then, Alpha’s work has been recognized with several international awards, including the Misk Global Challenge award in 2018 (sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation), the 2018 Rice Award for Leadership and Innovation by a Young Professional in International Development, and the 2018 CEMEX-Tec Center for Sustainable Development Award. He has been named the 2021 national influencer by the prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago (the first time a farmer has received this accolade), one of 30 Under 30 Caribbean American Emerging Leaders and Changemakers, as well as one of 2016’s Young Leaders of the Americas. He is currently a Specialist Business Mentor for Agriculture with the Caribbean Centre of Excellence for Sustainable Livelihoods and serves on the Next Gen Council for the Thought for Food Global Foundation. He has also been invited to speak in countries as diverse as Cameroon, the Netherlands, and Italy, hosted by organizations such as the United Nations, the International Fund for Agricultural Development, the Global Forum for Rural Advisory Services, and the Thought for Food Foundation, where he is an ambassador for the Caribbean. Currently, Alpha is pursuing a master’s in Agricultural Extension.