December 31

Christopher Burns / Milani Chatterji-Len

Can the Mobile Phone Call Youth Back to the Farm?

According to online media over recent years, youth are fleeing farms across the developing world. Young people report that they view agriculture as a dirty job, one that’s unattractive, risky and low-paying. They feel there’s little access to the financial services, information and communication tools required to excel in the field. These beliefs are often exacerbated by their parents, who expect that sending their children to school will automatically lead to less labor-intensive jobs.

Youth ages 15-24 represent 14 percent of the global population, and 88 percent of them live in developing countries. In Africa, 60 percent of the total population is younger than 24. And farming is the economic backbone for much of the continent, employing 65 percent of the population in sub-Saharan countries. Given that the average age of the African farmer is 60, and the growing youth bulge is exacerbating food security challenges, a strong argument can be made that new life should be breathed into the farming sector. In fact, one would anticipate a more symbiotic relationship between youth and farming, because agriculture is so vital to the livelihoods of so many across the developing world. There is, therefore, an enormous opportunity for this generation of young people to transform current practices and build stronger agricultural systems for the future.


What role does the mobile phone play in this equation?

With 59 percent of those in the developing world now owning mobile devices (750 million of whom are rural Africans), the mobile industry is reshaping how entire economies function. While the agriculture sector has been relatively slow to adopt newer technologies compared to other sectors, the relationship between agriculture and the digital economy will continue to grow tighter as long as the value proposition remains compelling.

According to Kenyan Nora Ndege, an independent consultant and USAID-supported African Women in Agricultural Research and Development (AWARD) Fellow, “Youth do not have major role models who are able to show them that agriculture is a very exciting venture, can be profitable, and that you can make a career of it.” Digital tools can facilitate this and help counter the perception that agriculture can only be a low-paying profession, she says.

This may sound a little simplistic. It is not. There is an inherent “cool factor” associated with digital technologies that appeals to youth. The mobile phone is admittedly just a tool (albeit a pretty powerful one) and not a panacea, but consider the evidence in support of its wider application across agricultural production and how it facilitates entrepreneurship.

In one study from Western Kenya, 90 percent of young farmers use digital tools for agricultural activities, and their application to farming businesses “generally increased yields, incomes and, more importantly, their social status.” As of 2014, throughout Kenya, 24 percent of startups were using the popular mobile money platform M-Pesa to process payments. Many of these new businesses are being founded by young Kenyans and couldn’t thrive without the incredible uptake of digital transaction services. Given the fact that only 25 percent of young people in Africa have any form of access to finance, including a bank account or credit card, digitizing financial services provides youth a pathway back to the farm. In fact, young African entrepreneurs are using technology more and more to achieve their goals.

This is not just about the mobile device itself, but rather the platform it provides for access to digital financial services (transactions, savings, credit and insurance) and information (such as market prices, localized weather patterns and improved farming practices tailored and delivered right to the farmer). Technology enables users to harness data, both big and small, for more precision farming, better supply-chain management, enhanced decision-making and analysis, and greater market efficiencies. Momentum at a market level – where countries can now embrace proven, cost-effective and widely available digital tools to advance agriculture-led growth – has generated a tremendous excitement. Even as recently as five years ago, this digital stimulation was only in its infancy.

Benefits from mobile phones do not accrue exclusively to farm productivity, but also enable new business models for more successful agricultural systems that can strengthen the core verticals of value chains, from inputs to markets, and ultimately drive economic growth and sustainable food security.

Ndege says the diversity of the value chain, offering a variety of entry points, is exciting to youth, especially at the post-harvest stage, to link farmers to processors and markets. This diversity has often been ignored by youth (and their parents), who tend to make a direct association between agriculture and back-breaking drudgery. Mobile phones and digital technologies can offer youth a more direct link to opportunities related to banking, transportation, marketing, processing and many other business opportunities, through the lens of agriculture. The services enabled by mobiles can also decrease some of the actual hardship of traditional farming. An intensified focus on such linkages could also mitigate the growing trend of young people seeing urban lifestyles, and employment in non-agricultural sectors, as a better way to improve their socioeconomic status. When digital tools are employed in a manner that demonstrates the value of agricultural work, Ndege notes, youth will be less focused on city-based jobs. Already, 18- to 30-year-olds in Africa are shaping how the mobile market is evolving and are clamoring for smartphones in pursuit of greater internet access and news/information.

Next door to Kenya, Uganda currently has the world’s youngest population, with over 78 percent below age 30. It too is witnessing a groundswell of excitement around mobile-enabled agriculture. Esther Karwera, chief business development officer for Akorion, emphasizes why so many youth are interested in digital tools: “Simply put, youth like playing with new technologies.” Akorion itself is a Feed the Future-supported company founded by young Ugandans who leverage mobile and digital technologies to create farmer profiles and value-added services such as soil testing, financial services, market linkages and crop insurance that help farmers become more productive.

Karwera emphasizes the status appeal of working with new technologies. When talking about Akorion’s use of mobile devices to improve farm yields, she says, “You are the pride of the village; everyone wants to own a smartphone.” Coupled with the fact that young people in less-developed countries are already twice as likely to be online than other members of the population, one finds a recipe for deeper youth integration in agriculture when technology is incorporated.

If you take the actual, “unattractive” farming out of the equation for a moment and think of agricultural production as an end-to-end business that requires a coordinated set of systems and functions – one that mobile and digital technologies facilitate – “farming” all of a sudden looks a lot more compelling as a livelihood and career path.

As a powerful engine for future economic growth and development, youth are calling for new opportunities, if even to integrate productively into more traditional ones. Why not embrace this enthusiasm, pair it with the agricultural sector as a dominant job provider, make it attractive by building upon the rise of integrated digital technologies, and unleash the youth of the world on opportunities to innovate and prosper?

On the heels of International Youth Day and following the 10th annual Global Youth Economic Opportunities Summit, we should embrace what motivates and best positions them to support their countries and thrive economically. We have a responsibility to set them on the right pathway and facilitate their critical role in farming’s future.

Digital Development for Feed the Future is a collaboration between USAID’s U.S. Global Development Lab and Bureau for Food Security focused on integrating digital technologies into Feed the Future activities to accelerate reductions in global hunger, malnutrition and poverty.


Christopher Burns is the senior coordinator, Digital Development for Feed the Future at USAID, and Milani Chatterji-Len is an undergraduate student in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at MIT.

Photo courtesy of USAID

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Agriculture, Technology
business development, smallholder farmers