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Farming for the Future: three ways to rethink youth livelihoods in the agriculture sector

Farming for the Future: three ways to rethink youth livelihoods in the agriculture sector

At a time when human well-being is measured not only in terms of economic development, but also on the resilience of the environment and the society we live in, it is important to question the nature of livelihood opportunities that young people are being encouraged to pursue and their implications for the future.

Assume that three in five African youth are meaningfully engaged in the agriculture sector. Assume they are investing across the value chain – in production, processing, manufacturing, distribution, and of course, are also the major consumers. This could not only address the global food demand (which FAO estimates will increase by 70 percent by 2050), but also, it would translate into a significant 60 percent of the much needed youth jobs. This notwithstanding, the World BankSumberg et al, and my earlier analyses on African youth in agriculture already suggest that young people are more likely to engage in agriculture as a transition into other off-farm rural/urban work opportunities. Thus, it is equally important to understand the very nature of youth livelihoods in agriculture, temporary or otherwise.

The point here is, increasing the number of (young/new) farmers will indeed address an immediate need for employment and food security in Africa; but it will also illuminate the systemic challenge concerning the future of farming. For how long can young/new farmers sustainably engage in the agricultural sector, securing their livelihoods, improving the economy, while also safeguarding the environment? I will highlight three key issues that the narrative of enticing young people into agriculture has not yet considered: - the ecological footprint, the markets, and the policy incentives.

The Footprint

My argument is that, in addition to real incomes and enhanced capabilities, youth opportunities in the agriculture sector must also contribute to ensuring that the agricultural landscapes remain resilient to the changing environment. To achieve such transformative work opportunities, what we really need to be addressing is the ecological footprint of young/new farmers in relation to increasing agricultural productivity, decent employment opportunities amidst environmental changes. Cleland & Machiyama argue that a demographic dividend could turn into a challenge as the growing rural and urban populations put more pressure on remaining arable land, soil and water resources are exhausted as we increase production, and more land is degraded due to over-cropping and over-grazing among other intensive activities. Globally, 13 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions come from the agriculture sector, with Africa contributing about 15 percent of that. These emissions will grow substantially in Sub-Saharan Africa, given the increasing demand for food and the availability of land in these countries that could be put under crop and livestock production. Essentially, this means that the current young/new farmers will be faced with the future challenge of reducing emissions from their agricultural practices. Yet, current efforts to engage them in agriculture do not inform or prepare them for such realities. Away from emissions reduction, let’s approach the issue from the perspective of soil and water conservation strategies, the conservation of agrobiodiversity, and the resilience of agricultural landscapes. Better still, let’s employ systems thinking, and appreciate the food, water, energy, and environment nexus in an agricultural landscape. Even with all these approaches, sadly, the current narrative to entice young people into agriculture rarely addresses how young farmers can participate in a climate-smart agriculture. This makes the current youth agricultural opportunities a time bomb for future agricultural contribution to, and vulnerability to the impacts of climate change.

The Markets

Proponents of youth entrepreneurship and employment rarely respond to the question of whether labour markets and free trade facilitate or hinder sustainable youth livelihoods in the agriculture sector. Until now, young people worked in the agriculture sector, as part of a household and as informal sector employees. These work opportunities are largely categorised as un(der)employment. The current narrative and approach seeks to increase youth engagement by encouraging them to establish agribusinesses. The shifting of goalposts from un(der)employment to self-employment is a complex twist of youth opportunity spaces and as well, a disguise of the reality of the marginalisation of young people in the formal and informal economies. First, there is an assumption that young people will earn decent incomes from agriculture if they become entrepreneurs; yet there is little evidence that entrepreneurship is a solution to the eminent agricultural challenges. Second is the assumption that un(der)employed young people are willing to become entrepreneurs; yet there is little evidence that entrepreneurship is a solution to existing youth unemployment challenges. Evidently, we have not addressed the challenges of current farmers and unemployed youth: why do we then anticipate that unemployed young people can enter the agriculture sector and become successful agripreneurs without addressing existing systemic challenges?

On the other side, there is an idealised view production is indeed the problem of African agriculture. However, markets and infrastructure to facilitate access and affordability of food are equally important. Against the backdrop of a projected green revolution in Africa, staple food imports continue to increase on the continent and in most cases, are cheaper than locally produced foods. On the contrary, Africa feeds the world with the some of the best and high-value crops. It is obvious that this market inequality hurdle remains a geopolitical battle that African countries could barely win. Under such a context, what incentive would a new/young farmer get for participating in the current agricultural markets? Would young/new farmers perpetuate the existing market trends that exacerbate global food crisis, or would they have the opportunity to participate in a food sovereignty movement that increases opportunities for social equity and inclusion?

Policy Incentives

We could argue that the solutions to the above two issues lies in the political will to implement existing policies. Nevertheless, we do not currently have adequate policies that favour sustainable youth work opportunities. At the heart of national and regional policy reforms to achieve these transformations, is the need to prioritise safeguarding the sovereignty of local farmers, their seeds, and their land resources; establishing agricultural processing and manufacturing industries so that more young people are absorbed across the agriculture value chains; and enhancing rural infrastructure to facilitate distribution, access and affordability even in the most remote areas of Africa. Additionally, policies that promote research and localised innovations to increase crop productivity and resilience of agriculture to climate change, while also being supported by policies that allow exportation of African-processed foods would further widen the opportunity space for young/new farmers. Most importantly, there is need to implement policies that favour innovative financing mechanisms for young people, promote intra-trade, and facilitate environmental integrity and social equity in agriculture and across all sectors. Above all, the implementation of these policies is reliant on peaceful countries and stable governments that invest in agricultural sector reforms for the benefit of their citizens.

Moving forward, our ability to capture the potential of the youth demography will determine whether we address the global food crisis and the interconnected challenge of climate change, thus attaining sustainability. Essentially, envisioning a sustainable future for young farmers helps demystify the narrative that unemployed youth, provided with financial support and enticed to use ICTs, will be attracted and retained in agricultural livelihood opportunities. Our attention should focus then on whether indeed our efforts to increase employment opportunities in agriculture align with our overall vision of sustainable development.


Grace Mwaura (Kenya & St. Hilda’s 2011) is currently a Programme Associate with Climate Interactive and a non-residential Research Fellow with African Centre for Technology Studies (ACTS). She completed a DPhil in Geography and the Environment at Oxford on the subject of greening youth livelihoods in contemporary Africa. 

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