© Helvetas / Narendra Shrestha

Youth on Agriculture: Back-Breaking Labour, Low Economic Pay-Off and Uncool?

BY: Zenebe B. Uraguchi, Michael Alandu - 24. November 2017
© Helvetas / Narendra Shrestha

Part one

We grew up in rural areas of Ghana and Ethiopia and saw how farmers struggled to make ends meet. Our dreams and those of our parents were not to become farmers but to aspire to be engineers, doctors or lawyers. That was many years ago. Indeed, everyone dreamt of escaping the farm. Fast forward: agriculture still seems to have an image problem among young people – it is hard back-breaking work, low-paying and ‘dirty’.

Our current jobs take us to different parts of the world, and we used such an opportunity to speak to young people about their thoughts on agriculture, as a profession and as a source of livelihoods. In a time of alarmingly high youth unemployment – including the limited prospects of finding decent non-farm work – and emerging evidence of older farmers in rural areas and rapid urbanisation in low and middle-income countries, we question if the issue that young people have with agriculture is just ‘an image problem’.

We also see the ‘yes’ or ‘no’ debate on whether ‘agriculture is (un)likely to be the main answer’ to youth employment a bit narrow. Recognising the challenges and without grossly overselling the idea that agriculture is the solution to youth unemployment, we discuss, in the first part of this blog post, some ideas about what can be done to make agriculture more attractive and demand-driven to young people. Stay tuned to concrete and in-depth cases in our subsequent blog posts.

With a changing face of agriculture…  

Two-thirds of the world’s poor work in the agricultural sector. It is still the most powerful sector for transformative change in most developing countries to end extreme poverty and feed a projected 9.7 billion people by 2050. Growth in agricultural productivity not only can increase farm incomes, it also stimulates linkages to the non-farm rural economy. Yet the sector is declining in terms of its share in national employment and gross domestic product (GDP).

Added to the above trends are an increasingly urbanised world and a declining ratio of food producers to food consumers. Rural farmers, mainly men, migrate to (semi)urban areas in search of better income, contributing to the ‘feminisation of agriculture’: women taking up at lower wages the tasks formerly reserved for men, such as land preparation and cultivation of crops. In addition, rural populations are 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 are no longer fit to work on their land.

… ‘young dividend’ may offer a hope for the future

The rising share of young working-age population in low and middle-income countries has the potential to increase productivity at a time when most of the advanced economies face an ageing population. There are over 1.2 billion young people in the world and the majority live in developing countries. About 60% of Africa’s population is under 25 years, and this is projected to double by 2050.

This demographic advantage or dividend offers opportunities to change the economic landscape of rural areas in many low and middle-income countries through integrating young labour force into the agricultural sector. The agricultural sector is often labour-intensive and can contribute substantially to both employment and GDP growth.

Yet more is needed to make agriculture relevant to young people

The above demographic transition can also become a threat: an army of unemployed youth and significantly increased social risks and tensions. The threat aspect of the demographic growth is called young demographic bulge. What can be done?

We spoke to a number of young people in several countries in Africa (e.g. Ghana, Ethiopia, DRC), Asia (e.g. Bangladesh, India, Vietnam) and Eastern Europe (e.g. Bosnia & Herzegovina, Albania, Kosovo). We wanted to know how agriculture could be more relevant to them as a profession and a source of livelihoods.

Adding value to agriculture – going beyond production and selling     

We learnt that what most young people perceive agriculture to be is the ‘produce-and-then-sell’ of the sector. This is what they are afraid of – its hard work and low-paying income as part of subsistence farming. Production is one thing, but adding value means transforming subsistence farming to agribusiness. This broadens opportunities in storage, processing and distribution of agro-based products; in the supply of production inputs; and in the provision of services, such as extension, research, finance and agricultural policies. An example of this effort is occurring through  RisiAlbania, a youth employment project in Eastern Europe that is focusing on niche products such as medicinal and aromatic plants (MAPs). Similar efforts can be replicated in other countries.

Facilitating linkages with other sectors

For example, agriculture and tourism provide the most natural entry points for synergies through agro-tourism. Weaving in the agricultural sector into tourism is a means to stimulate the revenue of agribusinesses and hence creating jobs. Similarly, information, communication and technology (ICT) is another key element in agribusiness: applications and software, for example, can be used to gather market information or skilfully promote products. Another youth employment initiative in Bosnia, MarketMakers, is currently facilitating the linkage between food processing and tourism.

Addressing missing, inadequate or mismatching skills

Skills development determines success in the labour markets. For this, it is important to define skills as one component of knowledge system that includes know-how, attitudes and competencies. Skills development goes beyond formal vocational education and training; it includes non-formal and informal types of training. Young people need a different type of skills to meet the different challenges in agriculture: foundation skills, technical skills, and transferable skills for starting their own rural enterprises.

Training and education institutions provide low quality and less relevant skills, creating a mismatch between young people’s skills and the needs of employers. There is lack of effective mechanisms/platforms for dialogue between agribusinesses and education institutions. The EYE initiative in Kosovo, another youth employment project, supports effective mechanisms/platforms for dialogue between private sector enterprises and educational institutions. In many low and middle-income countries, there seem to be little opportunities for private sector enterprises of diverse sizes to be involved in decision-making regarding curricula development and training.

Enhancing relevant information and career guidance services

Like our parents, many young people are also being influenced by their parents or peers to seeks education and then employment in sectors with uncertain prospect for employment. As mentioned above, young people we talked to know only about the negative sides of agriculture; no systematic and relevant information exists informing them the potential in agriculture.

For example, Young Professionals for Agricultural Development (YPARD), an international movement, promotes agriculture among young people by facilitating the exchange of information and knowledge. The RisiAlbania initiative works towards changing or improving the mass media system to provide relevant information to young people and their parents – in an attractive and profitable way. The improvement in information would influence the choices that young people make about employment and tertiary and vocational education. According to the US Department of Agriculture census on agriculture, a trend has begun in the US with a growing number of young Americans leaving desk jobs to farm. Although the statistics indicate that this is not yet a mass movement it shows that, with the right strategies, farming could be more attractive to the youth than it currently is.

Stimulating investment

Despite food prices increase and many facing food insecurity, there has been, for the past two decades, falling investments from public expenditure and international development assistance in agricultural research, development and innovation in low and middle-income countries. The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN (FAO) estimates that food production will need to increase by about 60% from current levels to feed an increasing world population.

While investment from governments is also vital, a more compelling evidence for job creation is through responsible investment by private sector enterprises which are the engine of innovation, transformation, and growth, and ultimately for the creation of most jobs. Private sector development and investment require favourable policies and regulations as well as access to relevant and quality services (business, technical and financial) for the generation of new job opportunities.

Key takeaway    

Looking back, we could have found ourselves working in the agricultural sector had we been able to get relevant information and proper skills, as well as access to employment from vibrant private sector investors. This suggests that making agriculture a relevant source of employment to young people requires a holistic approach like any other sector – targeting skills, information/career guidance and investment. This strongly suggests that the issue that young people have with agriculture is not 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.

The few ideas we mentioned above as forward-looking solutions do not imply that young people should return to the farming methods of their parents and grandparents; rather we emphasis on key functions linked to agriculture (not just value chains in production and selling but on processing, access to finance, skills development, information), as well as on entrepreneurship, ‘farming as a business’ and social norms and values to stimulate change in behaviour (not just of young people but also actors both private and public). Without an integrated approach/measure, we fear that a greater percentage of young people will turn their backs on agriculture, in a more permanent way, and look for opportunities in nearby towns, in large urban areas and overseas. This results in unproductive rural areas, and increased social and political tensions and widening economic inequalities in urban areas.

Additional sources

Programme Manager, East Europe, South Caucuses & Western Balkans; Senior Advisor, Sustainable & Inclusive Economies
Michael Alandu
Michael Alandu is a public policy analyst with over 15 years of program management and technical experience in post-conflict early recovery, stabilization and development: cross-sectoral governance, civil society strengthening, and decentralization. Michael is currently Country Director for CARE in Sierra Leone and Liberia.
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