The potential for youth to multiply agricultural production globally is huge.
Increasingly, however, young people from rural areas see their futures in urban centers, rather than in the fields—spurring a global wave of urban youth migration.
“Often young people don’t want to be in agriculture because they don’t see opportunities in agriculture,” said Rekha Mehra, Senior Associate for Gender and Economic Equity at Creative Associates International, speaking at the 2015 Making Cents Youth Economic Opportunities Summit in Washington, D.C.
“For young men and women to have opportunities in agriculture, it is critical to grow agriculture,” she said, leading an Oct. 7 panel of experts on inclusion of youth, women and girls in agriculture value chains.
Roughly half of the world’s population is younger than age 30, with 9 out of 10 youth living in developing countries. And some 70 percent of the world’s poor live in rural areas, where farming is a major source of employment, according to the World Bank
Bringing youth back to the land
As youth migration to urban areas grows and population levels climb, the need to bring young people back to agriculture is also expanding.
“Farming is an aging business, and young people are getting away from farming,” said Joyjit Deb Roy, Senior Vice President of Programs at Winrock International.
Yet upon arrival to cities, said Deb Roy, many young people from rural areas are finding only low wage jobs and poor living conditions, or end up unemployed. “But we can reengage the youth and bring them back to the land,” said Deb Roy.
By working with young farmers and rural communities to improve agriculture value chains—through micro-lending, vocational education, training in better planting, harvesting and selling practices, land grants, mentorship through youth farming groups and more—development practitioners can help build compelling counter arguments to convince young urban migrants of the income-generating opportunities back home.
Making women visible
Young women farmers face unique challenges in maximizing their contributions to and income from agriculture.
While nearly 2 in 5 agricultural workers in developing countries are women, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, many of them do not identify their own labor as a key part of the agriculture value chain.
“If you ask most women who you see out in the fields working, they will say ‘I am not a farmer,’” said Mehra.
And not only are women invisible to themselves as farmers, she said, but often they are overlooked in agricultural development—where their potential to generate income and enhance the agricultural value chain is immense.
From planting to marketing to selling, women and girls play a variety of roles along the agriculture value chain, often in surprising ways, said Mehra.
To maximize the income-generating opportunities for these women and their families, “we need to be sure that we’re looking at both women and men. If you don’t look, then you definitely won’t find them,” she said.
Planting seeds for the future
In order for the seeds of training and support to youth farmers to truly take root and reap benefits beyond the life of a given program, improvements to the agriculture value chain must be sustainable.
“If you do something without a sustainability component, you leave the beneficiaries vulnerable. Because they may not continue doing it if it is not sustainable,” said Esau Tugume, former Area Coordinator for the Agriculture Extension Program for BRAC International in Uganda.
In Uganda—where 78 percent of the population is under 30 and youth unemployment is 64 percent—sustainability in youth employment and agriculture is pivotal.
Working with young female farmers ages 15 to 30, the Agriculture Extension program provided access to better seeds and farmable land—something that is often not available to young women.
But to ensure long-term success, the women and girls received trainings in life skills, financial literacy, and vocational skills for better farming as well as ongoing peer mentorship through a local club, which Tugume said is one of the most critical components for lasting gains.
“These girls have been mentored and they are monitored by a leader,” he said, “So the beneficiary feels like she is part of the project. She owns it.”
Improving agricultural value chains and giving young men and women the tools and skills they need to grow their crops and their incomes is about more than boosting food production.
“We are all here to support young people in developing countries to lead hopeful and fulfilling lives,” said Mehra. “In doing so one of the most important things if giving them opportunities for meaningful work”