Why we Need to Stop the Bashing of the Agriculture Sector and Search for Forward-looking Solutions

10. May 2019

Joseph Ubek & Zenebe Uraguchi

“The the smallholder farmer is the baby panda of development cooperation,” forcefully argued Tim Sparkman, an economic development practitioner and systems thinker. His point is: the push towards "the smallholder production was not the means to achieve agricultural development, and it relegates a large number of people to a low opportunity existence." Such a focus perhaps is driven more by moral imperatives than considerations to the changing nature of development needs and priorities. Investments that don’t account for the shifts, like a cute baby panda, seems nice – as doing good things to millions of smallholder farmers – but are incredibly expensive and less impactful.

While we agree with the challenges that the agricultural sector faces, we call for, citing few examples from Nigeria, shifting the discussion from simply bashing the agriculture sector to finding solutions. We also see the “yes” or “no” debate on whether “agriculture is (un)likely to be the main answer” to income and employment a bit narrow.  

The agriculture sector is here to stay. It remains one of the most powerful sectors for addressing poverty and unemployment. The sector meets the increased demand for quality food products that can substitute imported agri-food products and presents new and important opportunities for income and employment, in particular for young people.

Young people will make up an increasingly large part of the global population. Yet mounting evidence suggests that few young people see a future for themselves in the agriculture sector. How do we, then, transform the agricultural sector so that it becomes more attractive to young people and it plays a better role in transitioning them into the world of work?

The Changing landscape: demographic, spatial and economic shifts

The youth population in Africa is projected to double to over 830 million by 2050. In many low and middle-income countries, young people struggle to make a smooth transition from school to gainful employment or successful entrepreneurship and experience financial independence. Within the agri-food sector, demographic, spatial and economic shifts are occurring.

Rural areas are facing rapid aging challenges. Young people are moving to urban areas. The greying of rural areas is due to rural populations ageing across the world. This will affect the output of agricultural land as there are fewer people who want to fill their boots when they’re no longer fit to work on their land. By 2050, the percentile of Africans living in urban areas is projected to grow by 70%, representing about 1.2 billion people from its current rate of about 45%.

There’s also decreased agricultural production and changing biophysical conditions, like soil properties, leading to higher food imports as Africa’s food import bill is estimated to increase to over US$ 110 billion by 2025. Climate change will reshape the world’s agriculture.

On the flip side, these shifts are creating new business opportunities for young people within the agriculture and food systems. In the last 20 years, food systems in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) has experienced rapid transformation. This’s marked by two key features: the general increase in food purchases especially by rural households and a notable increase in the consumption of processed foods.

For example, in Nigeria, nearly 75% of foods consumed in 2015 were purchased, and almost 65% of the purchased food was processed. This data highlights significant food market activity in rural food-shed towns, serving as conduits to urban areas. It’s anticipated that such activities will spur a demand for certain agricultural commodities, while also creating opportunities for non-farm and off-farm employment as well as value addition across the value chains of these commodities.

What do the changes mean for young people?

For young people, the above shifts are reinforcing and worsening new or existing cycles of shocks and stresses. Some of the risks and hazards experienced by young people include increased unemployment, as over 80 million youths in Nigeria between the ages of 15-24 are un- and underemployed and live in rural areas; suffer from poor access to investment capital; experience reduced access to agricultural crop land; and are hit by worsening changes in local climate.

Often, on the supply-side, young people are ill-equipped with the relevant skills to cope, adapt, and even transform their lives in the face of these shocks and stresses and are thus extremely vulnerable.

A study sees youth heterogeneity within agri-food systems as having three dimensions: socio-cultural embedding – age, gender, family background, and informal values and norms in agriculture; territorial embedding – ethnicity, politics, ecosystem, belonging, urban and rural; and value chain embedding – proximity to market, aspirations, identity, and integration within the value chain. The study concludes by stressing that the barriers to youths’ employment in agri-food systems are very specific to youths’ socio-cultural and economic identity, and local context.

As it stands, agriculture has a generational problem. Young people potentially bring innovation, energy and creativity in developing new, environmentally responsible and highly productive farming practices. However, failing or unresponsive skills development as well as underperforming entrepreneurship support mechanisms (from technical to business and financing) for linking the agricultural sector to other sectors (e.g. IT, tourism, services) hamper young people from seeing the future potentials. This weakens the prospects for a competitive agricultural sector in a globalised market.

Now to some priority solutions….

How can we, as development practitioners, ensure the agricultural sector play a better role in transitioning young people into the world of work?

From technical skills to lifelong learning  

Traditionally, development programmes work on improving supply-side problems through building technical and vocational skills. Yet such a focus will need to change so that it responds to the changing nature of work – that is, from hard skills to lifelong learning (e.g. problem solving, critical thinking, leadership, communication). More than anytime, the agricultural sector needs to be integrated into a knowledge-based economy. It simply means the use of ideas rather than physical abilities to work on land; it requires the application of technology and not just reliance on transformation of raw materials.  

The future of agriculture is about innovatively aggregating, value addition, processing, logistics, food preparation, restaurants and other related services. Running the farm as a business requires the right know-how adopted to the vagaries of the climate and the markets.  Therefore, skills in land management and conservation, climate change adaptation, irrigation and water management, biosecurity, business planning and financial management will increasingly become essential.

Investment in entrepreneurship and high-value crops

Support to enterprise development is critical, especially within high growth food value chains and sectors such as the services sector. For example, in urban settings the support includes taking advantage of commercial greenhouse, vertical farming and food-waste reduction business opportunities.

What is often ignored is the role of rural and peri-urban food-shed towns that are important conduits to urban markets. Solutions should focus, for example, on improving transportation systems and routes. Other linkages with supermarkets, fast-food restaurants and bars that also sell agri-food products in urban locations present ample opportunities for additional employment and entrepreneurship opportunities, especially for women. Intermediating investment finance that’s appropriate and affordable is also a critical tool for business growth and expansion.

The role of networks and platforms

Social networks and platforms are increasingly being used by young people to build resilience. Some of these platforms are ICT-enabled while others are based on connectedness through informal and formal groups – cooperatives, producer organizations, school, religious organisations, peers, etc. These platforms offer opportunities to access relevant information on jobs and business opportunities and create a sense of social place as well as integration.

Young people may have proper skills. Employers may be ready to hire young people. Often the two – supply and demand – don’t meet. This is where critical labour market support functions such as job information and job matching services platforms come in. For us, this demonstrates the need to see labour market systems in a holistic manner, not just focusing only on one dimension.

Our summary

The issues that young people have with the agriculture sector isn’t just simply an image problem, which for us seems to be a symptom rather than a root cause. In many cases, the problem is framed narrowly – that young people won’t return to the farming methods of their parents and grandparents. This’s restating the obvious….

To make the agriculture sector innovative and bankable for better income and employment, our focus should be on key functions linked to agriculture, not just in production and selling. The role of agriculture in economic stimulation lies in services such as packaging, transportation, processing, marketing, quality assurance, etc. Entrepreneurship should focus on making “farming as a business” but linked to “smart farming” or “precision agriculture”, the use of modern technology to increase the quantity and quality of agricultural products as well as adaptation and mitigation to climate change.

Small and medium-sized towns are important for connecting the multiple and complex interactions between rural and larger urban areas as well as people and enterprises. Territorial economic development and decentralisation efforts (administrative and fiscal) will need to account for how small and medium-sized towns serve as hubs for a thriving services sector and provide greater opportunities to market and share in the benefits of economic growth.

Additional sources


Cover photo credit: Nandhu Kumar

Programme Manager, East Europe, South Caucuses & Western Balkans; Senior Advisor, Sustainable & Inclusive Economies