Rethinking the ‘Youth Are Not Interested in Agriculture’ Narrative
In 2013, I interviewed a group of young people, staff and volunteers at a youth empowerment center in Kenya about their perceptions of agriculture as a livelihood. The interviews were part of a study driven by concerns about Kenya’s youth bulge, coupled with anecdotal evidence that the country’s youth had negative attitudes about working in the agricultural sector. The attitudes of the youth I interviewed were shaped primarily by the significant barriers they faced in accessing the capital needed to develop agriculture-based enterprises. Indeed, my findings pointed to the conclusion that the youth and agriculture problem runs deeper than the “youth are not interested” narrative.
Fast forward to 2016 and the Global Youth Economic Opportunities Summit hosted by Making Cents International, where the youth and agriculture problem was highlighted and the simplified assumptions underpinning it – such as “youth just are not interested” – were challenged.
Why is the youth and agriculture problem a concern to international development practitioners? For one, at a macro level, agriculture is the “backbone” of many sub-Saharan countries. For instance, agriculture accounts for about 70 percent of the total labor force and 30 percent of Gross Domestic Product in Kenya. Second, at the household level, rural households in Kenya rely heavily on subsistence agriculture for food consumption. Third, the country’s labor market lacks the ability to meet the demand of young job seekers. The highest unemployment rates in Kenya are for 20-year-olds, at 35 percent, followed by 25-year-olds, at 25 percent.
At the Global Youth Economic Opportunities Summit’s plenary titled “Seeding the Future: Land Tenure, Technology, and Opportunities in the Rural Economy,” panelist Thomas Jayne, a professor in the Department of Agricultural, Food and Resource Economics at Michigan State University, emphasized that agriculture is not a “declining sector” in sub-Saharan Africa. Over the next 20 years in sub-Saharan Africa, he said, 350 million youth will pursue employment, but even under the most favorable conditions only 25 percent will find wage-paying jobs in the formal economy. Agriculture offers a potential solution.
USAID’s Feed the Future Initiative cites the World Bank’s “Agriculture for Development” report, which makes the investment case for agriculture in developing countries. Perhaps the most compelling finding is that for people with the lowest incomes, “GDP growth originating in agriculture is about four times more effective in reducing poverty than GDP growth originating outside the sector.” Jayne presented the argument that multiplier effects offer the most significant benefit for investments in agriculture. Given the sheer size of the agricultural sector in sub-Saharan Africa in terms of number of producers, a slight increase in per capita income would have an overall positive economic impact.
Since 2013, farmers’ sales of Feed the Future-supported crops increased 30 percent, on average. For poor farming families, this means more income to: buy more food, access healthcare, pay for school, save for & invest in the future. Economic empowerment is good for rural families, their communities and countries, and the world. It all adds up.
Following Jayne’s talk, Odenda Lumumba, CEO of the Kenya Land Alliance, described a rural-to-urban migration trend he has observed in Kenya. Young people move to urban areas to attend school, he said, and once they are there, it is not uncommon for them to move to slums due to lack of opportunities. He implied that in many cases greater opportunity awaits youth in rural areas than in urban areas. The World Bank’s Agriculture for Development report points out that while agriculture is a driver of sub-Saharan African economies, only 4 percent of public spending is allocated to the sector. Lumumba called governments, donors and the private sector to invest in agriculture where it can have a significant multiplier effect: “Today agriculture has the biggest opportunity to end hunger and eventually end poverty. But how do you do that? That is the challenge.”
Prior to the plenary, Beth Dunford, assistant to the administrator in USAID’s Bureau for Food Security, said that it is not that youth in sub-Saharan Africa are simply not interested in agriculture; it is that they are not interested in pursuing the agriculture of their parents. Dunford said, “Young people bring the kind of innovation, energy and enthusiasm that we need to tap into (for) transformative solutions to many of our biggest problems. Youth are interested in that, and that is what we need for agriculture.” Her message resonated with the research I did in 2013, in which youth frequently reflected on their experiences witnessing their parents’ hard manual labor. Dunford described Feed the Future’s approach to development, focused on creating enabling environments with youth – not for youth – to grow and expand their agricultural enterprises. A key takeaway message was that “there is money in the soil,” an expression Dunford heard while in Zambia.
The panel included two youth who both provided on-the-ground perspectives of how they had pursued agriculture in their home countries of Tanzania and the Philippines. First, 22-year-old Sirjeff Dennis of Jefran Agrifriend Solutions (JAS), based in Tanzania, shared his experience of growing up in a slum where finding a meal was difficult. When he saw a woman in his neighborhood lose her baby to malnutrition, it gave him the passion to end hunger through agriculture. Despite earning his degree in petroleum engineering, Dennis decide to become an agricultural entrepreneur, or “agripreneur.” Five years ago he started his company with $50 USD. He purchased 50 chickens and eventually expanded his enterprise to include maize, rice, tomatoes, Chinese cabbage, okra, eggplant and onion. On one hand, he explained, there is a common stereotype among Tanzanian youth that agriculture is something that should be done by poor people with a low level of education; on the other hand, people throughout his country really love it.
Dennis’ comments suggest that there is a cultural value to agriculture; however, there is a perception that those who pursue careers in the sector are minimally educated and are destined to be poor due to the difficulty in generating sustained incomes. To assist in debunking this attitude, Dennis created a youth and agriculture initiative within JAS, recruiting and training young people to start their own agricultural enterprises. He had hoped for 30 applicants but received 300, demonstrating the interest of youth in agriculture.
Today, Dennis’ business employs 37 people, with 80 percent of them 23 or younger – and 20 percent are women. Despite the success, he points to key challenges that threaten the sustainability of his enterprise. For one, access to finance is a significant problem for Dennis. For example, despite the exposure he gained through winning a MasterCard Foundation award, the local bank was still not willing to provide him with a loan. The reason? Because he is 22 and doing agriculture. Another challenge, he said, is access to equipment. He had to import equipment through Alibaba, an online marketplace, to scale his business, which was very expensive. Dennis recommended that the government in his country lower taxes for young farmers, provide assistance to youth to form farming cooperatives, and provide financial assistance. He stated that development practitioners must create awareness among banks and governments about the unique challenges agripreneurs face, so that investments in agriculture make sense.
Another young agripreneur, Cherrie Atilano, shared her perspective as it relates to a social enterprise she founded called AGREA, based on the island of Marinduque in the Philippines. AGREA leads a youth movement in support of agriculture, offers a variety of trainings and events, promotes sustainable agricultural technologies, and bridges the gap between farmers and consumers. AGREA is known for its tagline, “Making farming cool, smart, sexy, and humane.” Atilano starting farming when she was 12 years old and 18 years later, she is still involved. She said a lot of young people in the Philippines, especially professionals, are going back into the sector. There are thriving high-value markets for organic and artisan foods in Southeast Asia, she said, and the Filipino government has begun to recognize the value of agriculture. For example, a new law mandates all public and private schools visit a farm once per year as a field trip. Finance, Cherrie noted, remains the most significant barrier to young farmers working to start their own agricultural enterprises in her country.
Speakers at the summit made a strong argument for the potential of agriculture and why the development community should continue to challenge the assumptions behind the notion that youth are not interested in it. However, the transformation of structures (including government and the private sector) and processes (such as laws, policies, culture and institutions), which in turn influence ability to respond to shocks, trends and seasonality, must be addressed within the local context. These macro factors have an ultimate influence on the ability of youth to access key capital to develop, sustain and scale their agrienterprises.
Kristin Babbie is a senior project administrator on the Grants Management team at the William Davidson Institute (NextBillion’s parent organization).
Photo by Neil Palmer (CIAT) via Flickr