At conferences, workshops and all sorts of meetings across Kenya and beyond, speaker after speaker is concerned with how to make agriculture attractive to young people. Why do we desire to have more of our youth in agriculture?
The agricultural sector is the backbone of Kenya’s economy, contributing approximately 33 per cent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). The sector directly or indirectly employs more than 40 per cent of the total population and 70 per cent of the rural population.
Against this backdrop, the international development community has been talking a lot about smallholder farmers and the support the need to “feed the world”.
In a country such as Kenya, where the formal job market can only absorb less than 10 per cent of labour market entrants and where youths are expected to create their own jobs in the informal sector, the agricultural value chain seems like a good place to be for a young entrepreneur. This has gained even more currency given the ravages visited by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Indeed, ‘Youth in agriculture’ is one of today’s hot topics – it seems like every development agency and initiative has activities that address this issue but most of them seem to focus on off-farm jobs. Meanwhile, agricultural productivity has stagnated in recent years.
Much of the conversation on making agriculture sexy for Kenya’s youth is focused on increasing the profitability of the sector. However, such efforts ignore the elephant in the room. Generally, farmers are ageing – the average age of farmers in Kenya, for example, is 62 years – and fewer young people are going into farming.
Even farmers are discouraging their children from going into farming, portraying it as a life of poverty and hardship.
Besides, trending research suggests that the lure of money is not the be-all and end-all in rebooting the sector especially for the youth. The crux of the matter is that current systems are forcing young Kenyans to make an untenable choice between being farmers and giving up the joys of youth.
So, what would it take to make agriculture sexy and fun for young people? Available research findings on this issue are spectacular to say the least. They find that “sex, money and fun are inseparable throughout any and all youth activities. Money is certainly desirable, but it is not worth the effort if more money does not result in more sex and more fun”.
The study’s findings help us contextualise the fact that of necessity, agriculture unfolds in rural spaces, “a place with no date-worthy girls or boys and definitely no fun”. So even if a young person becomes a successful farmer with a healthy income – they cannot buy their way into “a date-worthy urban peer community”.
Therefore, to be persuasive to young Kenyans, a positive deviant story in agriculture cannot simply be about a wealthy young farmer. It needs to be about young people, enjoying the attention of good-looking guys or girls, having fun and being able to live the good life with the money they earn as effective entrepreneurs.
Rather than trying to make rural areas more exciting spaces, we should focus on making it possible for the young people who make a living in rural spaces to have access to urban pleasures. We need to invest in infrastructure.
Most conversations about the importance of infrastructure for the agricultural sector are driven by concerns around market access but, if we want to attract and retain young people in Kenya’s rural farms, we need roads and railways that connect rural spaces to urban spaces. Young people in rural areas must not be faced with an untenable choice between giving up their youth and being farmers.
Kenya’s youth are already interested in agriculture, but they are engaging differently, and current systems are not meeting their needs. Significant numbers of Kenya’s youth are using social networks to build vibrant communities of young farmers.
For example, Digital Farmers Kenya is a closed Facebook group with over 200,000 members, mostly young farmers spread all over Kenya. Dairy Farmers Kenya and similar digital communities across the country and continent allow young people to support and encourage each other.
Unfortunately, because most agricultural support services were built on assumptions of an older demographic of farmers, they have not adjusted to adequately meet the needs and priorities of Kenya’s growing crop of young digital farmers. Scores of young farmers are left to fend for themselves on Google or advise each other in the absence of structured and scientifically sound support.
While the odd app or mobile service exists, these are usually from the private sector or civil society. National and County governments hold the true but untapped potential to take digital farmer support services to scale.
One organisation that has chosen to preach a different gospel is Development Through Media (DTM). The first non-profit and development-oriented audio-visual media organisation to set up in Kenya way back in 1996. Through its programmes including “Empowering rural communities through media” and online radio, Radio Baraza, it seeks to break the predominant negative stereotype about rural communities being passive backwaters where few things of interest happen and give renewed attention to decent work in the rural economy.
It is retooling media practitioners, through its training programme, to appreciate that commitment toward eradicating poverty and building resilient communities can only be achieved with particular emphasis on promoting the development of progressive, prosperous, and self-reliant rural communities.
Catching people young is central to piquing their interest in agriculture and food production. Programmes around the world show that including food and nutrition in school curricula from as early as primary school raises young people’s interest in agriculture and the food sector. It also feeds into improvements in both food production and nutrition, especially if parents and the local community are involved in the teaching and preparation of school meals.
Challenging the current mindset of youth that agriculture is a life of toil, hardship and poverty is not easy, but it can be done – and must be done to secure our future food security. By catching children young and showing them the potential of agriculture as a challenging but rewarding business, we can bring a new generation to the farms.
But we also have to engage with current farmers to change their mindset from one of subsistence and hand-to-mouth existence and build a sense of professionalism around agriculture. We have the tools to do this, especially in mainstream media and social media. Now, we have to tell the stories that make agriculture great again.