By Teddy Searight
I know from personal experience it’s difficult for parents to let go of things they’ve cherished for years – for my dad, it’s broken antique chairs that he insists he’ll fix when he ‘has a spare moment’… i.e. never. ‘What’s the link between clutching on to family objects and youth engagement in agriculture,’ I hear you ask?
Projecting such forms of sentimentality towards traditional crops is stifling youths’ economic prospects in agriculture.
A recent trip to Nairobi, Kenya, to research youth engagement in agriculture, portrayed a mixed picture of what it’s like to be a young person in Kenya. Unemployment amongst youth is the highest in East Africa at over 17%. Although Kenya’s economy is growing fast (5.8% in 2016) this growth is lopsided, centred on the financial and tech sectors in Nairobi, leaving behind the majority of the rural population and much of the nations untapped youth.
Meanwhile in rural areas, where agriculture remains the mainstay of local and indeed the national economy, the older generation grows perennial staple crops, as they’ve done for much of their lives. Crops such as maize, tea, coffee and sugarcane, have fed, housed, clothed and educated their families affording their children opportunities they probably never had. These crops represent not only their livelihoods but their lives. So why change?
The problem lies with the generational gap associated with an ever more globalised, tech-driven and culturally-fluid world. Market demands for foods are volatile and dynamic, with once reliable cash crops – such as coffee – becoming almost worthless, practically overnight. In this fast paced business there’s no time for looking back. The youth in countries, such as Kenya, know this while their parents struggle to keep up or actively push back.
Rose Muganda, Agribusiness Specialist, Kiptalam, working on the USAID-funded Kenya Youth Employment & Skills (K-YES) programme, said “An old coffee farmer in central Kenya is reluctant to give up his farm to his son or daughter because he knows they’ll up-root the bushes straight away.” Even though the price of coffee is poor the crop offers security and comfort for farmers who don’t need to take risks in the latter stages of life. Their children, however, need to support new lives and new families which are often dependent on professional success.
The crops of yesteryear are often unattractive to youth because of the high initial investment and slow rate of return – for example, sugarcane takes 14 months to harvest. This is in addition to saturated commodity markets and resulting low prices. To earn a ‘quick buck,’ youth are looking to more affordable and faster growing crops and livestock which demand a premium price.
But perhaps the biggest hurdle to overcome is the image problem surrounding agriculture in Kenya and other countries in the region. From an early age children see their parents in the fields working hard for little reward. Breaking down the stigma and rebranding agriculture as a successful career option for young people requires positive role models and an enabling environment where business training, markets, extension services, finance and land tenure must be accessible to young people.
Agriculture and so-called ‘Agripreneurship’, can offer a rich and vibrant livelihood path – either in itself or as a side hustle to supplement income or to fund a dream career. For Kenya and other East African countries to capitalise on the talent and innovation within young farmers, institutions must acknowledge and develop value chains that encourage real wealth creation and shift away from focusing on traditional staple crops farmed by older farmers.
It’s often not easy for a child to get through to their parent on issues of ‘out with the old, in with the new,’ but when there’s the future prosperity of a generation and continent at stake, this is an important household and national conversation that needs to be had.