Youth Are the Future of Agriculture: A Conversation with Caroline Bailey and Cheryl Turner


Originally published by Agrilinks

Let’s face it, farming can be a tough sell. In many parts of the developing world, rural youth are abandoning fields to take their chances in urban areas—often without employment prospects or requisite skills. At the same time, rapidly growing populations and an expanding middle class have created growing appetites for traditional staple crops as well as pricier horticulture and livestock products.

The result is an aging agriculture sector that threatens to buckle under increased demand, and large numbers of unemployed young people who view farming and agriculture as risky and not profitable.

For development practitioners, engaging youth in agricultural value chains is an effective way to address both of these challenges. But building that engagement doesn’t come easy.

In October, the Agrilinks Team caught up with Caroline Bailey, program associate, East and Southern Africa Unit at NCBA CLUSA, and Cheryl Turner, senior director of technical training at ACDI/VOCA, at the Making Cents Youth Economic Opportunities Summit to explore the challenges, opportunities and persistent questions for engaging youth in agriculture.

Here are their top 5 takeaways:

1) Interventions need to specifically target young people to achieve the best outcomes.

Though rural young people frequently benefit from programs and projects, Cheryl and Caroline emphasized that interventions not specifically designed and targeted to youth in the agriculture sector are not going to be as successful or achieve the best possible outcomes.

“We’re implementing several Feed the Future projects around the world, and we know we’re serving youth," Cheryl said, "but unless there are specific activities targeted to engage them—to take advantage of the characteristics that make them a really exciting demographic to work with—then we won’t see the best possible results. You have to design for that in order to have results that speak to what works.”

Technology can be a good way to improve farm profitability and attract youth to agricultural value chains. Caroline pointed out, however, that many areas lack sufficient infrastructure, so practitioners need to think about alternative approaches:

“I think there’s this idea that youth are really interested in technology, so we need to bring technology to the farm. But in my experience, is that realistic? Can we really do that in a lot of these rural areas? What other innovations are there out there to get youth back to the land? Not just engaging youth in these entrepreneurship and marketing sides of the value chain, but getting them back to that initial step in the value chain.”

2) We need to work with financial service providers to better serve youth in agriculture.

Young people are a risky investment for financial institutions. Young people in agriculture? Doubly so.

“Youth are a risky population because they don’t have previous transactions financial service providers can look at and say, ‘Oh, yeah, you’re a healthy risk,’” Caroline explained. “They also don’t have collateral a lot of times. Then you add in all the risk factors for ag—you have seasons, you have drought, you have floods—the risk piles up. So how do we mitigate that while working with financial institutions?”

3) Labor markets are key to bringing young people out of poverty.

Unemployment among youth is three times higher than that of older generations. And while increasing agricultural productivity and profitability is beneficial, practitioners need to ensure that those increases are also effective in developing local labor markets that provide opportunities for youth.

“The fastest way for a family to move out of poverty is not by having more investment in their farms—it’s by getting jobs,” Cheryl said. “But it’s always been a little bit of a struggle, because in many of the places we’ve worked, there is no labor market.

“But this is why markets are kind of the most valuable approach. Because by creating those commercial farms, by creating those ancillary industries, by creating those other opportunities, youth can stay in their communities and continue to add value to their households as opposed to the constant migration to other countries or to cities, which is what’s creating the 50-year-old farmer that’s not moving forward.”

4) Young people are interested in climate change.

Some young people may be reluctant to pursue work in agriculture because they feel they don’t have new ideas or improvements to contribute. Moreover, their lack of experience and knowledge can affect their standing within their communities. But providing education to youth about climate change and climate-smart agricultural approaches gives them a unique perspective and valuable techniques to contribute.

“By educating youth on climate,” Cheryl explained, “it gives them a knowledge base so they can be kind of a leader in their community, which gives them a standing they might not have had. So building in some of those climate and natural resource management technologies around landscape approaches to managing farms and that sort of thing gives youth an avenue for building their own self-confidence and capability.”

5) We still have much to learn about engaging youth in agriculture.

Both Caroline and Cheryl emphasized that we still have a lot to learn when it comes to engaging young people and scaling successes.

“Some of the success is happenstance,” Cheryl said. “We had a success, and it happened that those people were under 30, but the project didn’t take advantage of the fact that youth tend to like certain things or are attracted to certain things. If we could look at who young people are and what they like—do some barrier analysis—and what’s preventing them from really making the leap, and then integrate that into a project including some of these other market-driven forces, then you’re going to get something really powerful that you could take to scale.”

“Or finding out if it’s not just happenstance,” Caroline added. “Finding out, did this project work because it was specifically looking at this target group, and if so, why? Because we just don’t have the answers right now. The data’s not there, the models aren’t there.”