Agriculture employs a lot of young people and is likely to continue to do so in the future. But to meet the aspirations of millions who want rewarding work, the continent’s agricultural sector will have to change significantly. Today’s farming by machete and hoe does not appeal to the young or to policymakers. Farming is not even viewed as a “job” by many youth, who instead reserve the term for employment that requires clean clothes and a desk. Yet for a generation of young people entering adulthood, agriculture offers the best opportunity to move out of poverty and build satisfying lives.
Markets for food are booming globally and in Kenya. Recent trends in income growth, urbanisation and diet have created a sharp rise in food demand. Farmers have an opportunity to bring more products to markets that consumers want and increasingly can afford. Who will serve these markets? Local farmers or outside producers? The answer depends on decisions that our leaders make regarding policies and public investments that affect the competitiveness of local farmers.
We have abundant resources suited for agriculture – especially land, water and labour. Young people seeking to establish farms different from those of their parents and grandparents have many options, but they also face daunting hurdles. They can farm a portion of their family land, but to do so while earning higher incomes will require skills and capital to move into high-value forms of production, such as horticulture or small livestock. They also may venture out and establish their own independent farms, often in their same community. Malawi’s programme to redistribute under-utilised land from former tea estates created opportunities for local people to start new farms, and many who did so were young.
Young people the world over often enter farming by renting land at first. The poor development of rental markets, however, acts as a major barrier to such opportunities. Paradoxically, it is easier for large outside investors to obtain farmland than it is for local young people. Those who can obtain land will need advice and mentoring to manage it well and access to grants or affordable loans to use as start-up capital.
Many young people will not want to take the risk of establishing their own mid-sized farms, instead they opt for a combination of some part-time farming and supplying services to their neighbours, such as transport, simple veterinary services, repair of equipment, etc. Others may choose from an even wider range of wage-based work, from unskilled day labour to highly skilled positions on large commercial farms or in food processing. All of these options represent real opportunities for the young people.
Policymakers must soon recognise the importance of agriculture for employment of the young, and redouble efforts to transform the sector. Despite years of commitments by leaders to invest in agriculture and a modest improvement in performance, change is coming too slowly. Leaders must convert their rhetorical commitment to agriculture into actions that transform the lives of millions of rural young people. Their efforts will be repaid with an outpouring of energy and initiative sufficient to raise incomes, improve food security, deliver better nutrition, and boost the balance of payments.
Kenya’s youth dividend is in the countryside, and a vibrant agricultural sector is the mechanism through which to collect it.