6.2.2 Diversity and Life Course

At the same time, there is significant demographic diversity among young people raised in rural areas; some people migrate back and forth from rural to rural areas, and people engage in agriculture – the default rural occupation - for different reasons at different times in their lives.

All of these factors  - demographic diversity, migration and life course - trend differently in different regions.  In addition, there is also variation within regions and countries according to demographics, local geography, development levels and the general operating environment.

A. Regional Variation

Different macro-level trends in different regions mean that the challenges and opportunities facing young people in rural areas are different and call for different policies and practical approaches. The largest and poorest rural youth populations are in Sub-Saharan Africa and South East Asia, while the Middle East faces a shortage of qualified workers in the face of widespread unemployment.The International Labor Organization defines “decent work” as the availability of employment in conditions of freedom, equity, human security and dignity. 1The following very broad trends provide a picture of the opportunities and issues youth face in rural areas of different regions:

  • Sub-Saharan Africa – opportunities in small-holder agribusiness remain, coupled with the need for workforce development, especially for the poor: The rural youth population is projected to continue to grow until 2040; smallholder farming is expected to continue to play a significant role in food production and in the economy.  The era of “area expansion” – cultivating more land - is over.  Instead, “intensification” will be required for small-medium sized farms.  “Intensification” represents an opportunity for commercial agri-business throughout agricultural value chains as farmers demand more advanced inputs, technology, services and advice, and as crops require better post-harvest handling, processing, packaging, inspection, and marketing.  However, there is a cohort of very small farms that are no longer economically viable units. Young people from these farms will need workforce development to pursue viable and safe off-farm employment, whether in rural or urban settings, and older farmers will need assistance to manage viable livelihoods. 
  • Latin America and Caribbean – although there are pockets of opportunity for young people in rural agri-business, preparing rural young people for urban jobs and self-employment is the best way to support large numbers of rural young people in most settings. The rural youth population has been declining gradually for 20 years, and land is very unevenly distributed; Latin American agriculture in general is becoming increasingly dominated by large-scale production.  For example, Brazil leads the region with large-scale, industrial farming that drives growth and provides affordable food, but offers limited employment opportunities due to its capital intensive technology and industrialized processing practices.  In locations with this kind of agricultural structure or trajectory, the relevant YEO strategy is workforce development with a view toward urbanization.  In some places, land rights advocates are also trying to address the issue of uneven land distribution and severe environmental degradation, a strategy particularly relevant for indigenous people living in the Amazon or other sensitive environments.   In some countries and situations – particularly in Central America and the Caribbean, in locations where small-medium sized farming is prevalent and the agricultural zone is conducive, there are opportunities for farmers to engage in production of high-value, labor intensive, specialty crops like specialty coffee and cocoa, fruit, spices, and some vegetables.  These opportunities vie for attention and are sometimes disrupted by drug-crop production or other aspects of narco-traffic. In these settings, YEO supporters are pursuing strategies that include not only smallholder intensification and access to markets, but also addressing land tenure, risk preparedness (due to hurricanes and violence) and environmental management.
  • Middle East and North Africa (MENA) – young people from rural areas need workforce development to meet the demand for skilled workers: The rural youth population is still growing and is projected to peak in 2020, and to decline slowly thereafter; geographically, agriculture is less viable in most areas of the MENA region.  Compared to other regions, the industrial and service sectors in MENA are growing, and there is high demand for skilled workers, while the demand for low-skilled labor is often fulfilled through foreign workers.  There are higher numbers of educated young people in the MENA region, but their skills do not match the demand for labor.  While there are pockets of agri-business opportunity based on small-scale production (in parts of Lebanon or Egypt, for example), the more critical strategy for generating employment at scale in MENA is workforce development for “medium-level” skilled professions.  The particular challenge for young people from rural areas is their lower education levels and weaker family networks, the usual path toward landing a job.
  • South-East Asia (i.e., India, Bangladesh) and the Pacific (i.e. Indonesia, Philippines): There are opportunities for young people in rural agri-business, and opportunities for decent work 2; a dual-focus will help young people – especially girls – stay out of low-pay, dangerous, urban work.  The rural youth population is peaking now, and is projected to decline sharply in the coming decades.  There are two simultaneous trends in rural youth issues in this region. On the one hand – similar to the trends in the MENA region - rapid economic growth in modern sectors produces demand for workers.  The well-educated cohort of the workforce needs better skills to land “good jobs.” Attention is needed to improve working conditions in many sectors to mitigate the very high risk of rural young people - especially girls – getting trapped in low-pay, dangerous urban work.  On the other hand – similar to the situation in Sub-Saharan Africa – food production is heavily dependent on small-medium scale farming, which can provide, and is providing, significant opportunities in agri-business.  In India and Bangladesh in particular, these two trends are combining into a powerful force for development as a movement of technologically advanced, highly capitalized, and socially responsible corporations expand to a massive scale, combining business practices that balance the drive for profit and social development.  Many leaders in this movement do business with small-scale farmers and other rural people - supplying inputs, purchasing crops, selling a range of productive technologies and consumer goods from solar electric and water purification systems to nutrient enriched yoghurt for children and mainstream consumer items. As in Africa, there is also a cohort of very poor, “micro-farmers” in this region who barely get by and whose children require alternative sources of livelihood, whether in rural or urban settings.
  • Eastern and Central Asia: Diversity highlights the need for more specific locational strategies. This region is extremely diverse.  In China, the rural youth population has declined precipitously since the mid 1980s, and the country is facing the challenge of how a small, young population will take care of a large, aging population.  However, in Vietnam and Cambodia, for example, small-holder production and related agribusiness is still a major source of food and viable employment; here, trends diverge again with modern industry and technology sectors taking off exponentially in Vietnam and just emerging in Cambodia.  This region highlights the importance of paying careful attention to country-level and even more specific location settings in designing policy and programs.

B. Micro-Location and Demographic Variations are Significant

Within these regions, in each country, and among different populations in the same area, there are significant variations in challenges and opportunities for young people.  The “sustainable livelihoods” framework is useful for understanding key factors that influence the resources, desires and needs of a particular cohort of young people.  These factors include the following kinds of assets and vulnerabilities:

  • Human: knowledge, skills, health, marital and parental status, physical capacity or disability, level of power or autonomy, level of business activity;
  • Natural: climate, risk of natural disaster, quality and distribution of land, forest products, water;
  • Physical: quality and access to infrastructure, technology, production practices, markets, government and business facilities, and physical security;
  • Financial: access to capital and other financial services; cash, bank accounts or other financial investments; and
  • Social: personal and professional networks, support systems, and barriers due to social or demographic status (gender, ethnicity, age).

Most common factors related to location (climate, agricultural zone, level of development, security, risk of natural disaster, land distribution trends, etc.) and individual demographics (gender, education level, poverty level, etc.) are encompassed in this framework, which is frequently used in poverty eradication and community development work. 3

Research Spotlight: Diverse Demographics, Experiences and Aspirations Toward Cocoa Farming in Ghana

The following profiles provide some picture of the deep diversity of demographics, experiences and aspirations of young people in one region of Ghana. 4

“Mosi (age 24), who has had no schooling, was born to a migrant cocoa farmer in Aku-Nkwanta, and had spent his childhood and teenage years working on different farms as a labourer. He had progressed to being a caretaker. He planned to work for another four years, and make enough money to learn a trade.”

“Mamuna’s (age 21) parents migrated from Bolgatanga in the north of Ghana to southern Ghana, to work as caretakers on a rice farm. Mamuna’s mother returned home after the death of her husband but Mamuna remained hoping to finish school, ending up working on a relative’s rice farm. After a failed arranged marriage, Mamuna returned to live with an aunt who enrolled her as an apprentice to a seamstress. She soon met Osei, a young man from her hometown who told her he had prospects in cocoa farming and was headed to Subreho [further south] to act as caretaker of a farm, and hopefully to establish a farm of his own. He promised he would give her some of his earnings so she could continue her apprenticeship training. They were married and immediately moved to Subreho to help Osei’s older brother with his contract as a caretaker, hoping that the farm-owning family would soon give him a contract of his own. However, according to Mamuna, Osei was not serious about farming and preferred to work as a casual day labourer for quick money. Although Mamuna wanted to help Osei to work towards buying their own cocoa farm, that did not seem likely and she was thinking of going to the Western Region to live with her older brother who, having started out as a labourer on a cocoa farm, now owned a six-acre cocoa farm, and was caretaker for another 10 acres of cocoa farmland.”

“Richard (age 18). As a young boy, Richard remembers his mother carving out a small part of her farm for him and teaching him how to weed and sow it. At 18, unlike many of his ‘age-mates’ in his town, he had his own cocoa farm. While Richard was in school, his older brother … took care of his farm. Although Richard made some profit from his cocoa farm that went towards his school fees, he made up his mind that he was not going to continue with cocoa farming. He considered it too much of a burden to expect his brother to look after three farms. Besides, they did not have enough money for inputs such as fertiliser and pesticides. When he was younger, Richard had wanted to be a cocoa farmer, but farming was no longer in his future plans; he was doing well at school and would rather become a teacher or a policeman.”

“Kwaku (age 23). At 15, with an absentee father and ten siblings, Kwaku quit school and took up farming. At first he did not know much about cocoa farming and did not make much money from it. He turned to charcoal-making, which he thought would bring him money faster. Three years previously, he returned to Moffram to find his mother struggling to maintain the cocoa farm. ‘Looking at my situation – the fact that I didn’t go to school – I have no choice but to put everything into farming,’ he said. He farmed with his mother on two acres of family land his maternal grandfather purchased. In addition, he had bought a piece of land in Nsawam, in the Eastern Region. Kwaku still wanted a chance to travel to a bigger town in the region to learn a trade but he wanted to make sure that he had cultivated the cocoa farm to the stage that he could comfortably leave it in someone’s care. Even with a trade, he would still maintain a farm: ‘I would know that I can come here, and get enough out of the cocoa to get myself out of that situation.’ Kwaku would like to send his children to school. He hoped they would become teachers, but would help them to set up cocoa farms alongside whatever jobs they would do.”

C. Life Stage

Life stage is another significant factor contributing to a young person’s interest and potential for engaging in agriculture or other rural YEO opportunities. As children grow up, their opportunities, desires and needs change. Earlier in their lives, young people may be looking for opportunities for education and training; without state or family funds, most will try to work to earn money to pay for this critical investment. With some education and training in hand, young people may be expecting to develop a career path or business, although they may work other jobs or practice farming in the meanwhile. At these life stages, with sufficient family support, young people may be willing to take big risks to launch themselves into a higher standard of living or to find meaningful, productive careers.  Once people become parents – which often happens at a very young age, particularly for women – earning a livelihood for the family begins to take precedence.  In general, people become more risk averse. As young people go through these typical life stages, they have different motivation and capacity to learn, farm and work. Rural development practitioners that simply “reach out” to young people, without adapting programs to accommodate young clients’ life stage and life course, may be disappointed when a job or business only lasts a year, but potentially the young client is very pleased because they used the money earned to get more training to land a better job. Rural development practitioners may be disappointed when young mothers do not try new types of businesses that are more lucrative but are very labor intensive, only provide income every six months and/or are too risky given the responsibilities that even very young women carry.

Cash Crops as an “Instrumental” Activity: Young People Growing Tomatoes in Ghana

The key findings from a 4-year study of young tomato growers (1995-1999):5

“Young people in Pamdu tried to use their tomato production to quickly accumulate a significant quantity of capital that they planned to use to further specific projects that would help them launch their independent lives. As such, they used tomato production in a very instrumental and short-term way: the ‘quick money’ that they could generate giving them some additional ‘power’ to shape the crucial first steps in livelihood building. Neither the sustainability of the tomato production system, nor their long-term engagement in agriculture was a key concern. Nevertheless, at least in this location where there is a wide variety of crop production possibilities, staying in the village means continuing some engagement with farming. However, in most cases farming is combined with other income-generating activities: there is little evidence in Pamdu of what might be considered full-time or ‘career’ farming. Further, by 2011 there were few if any signs of a technology-led ‘Green Revolution’.”

The study further notes that access to resources and outcomes were significantly different for men and for women.  For example, even prior to marriage, women faced challenges engaging in intensive tomato production due to significant domestic responsibilities, one of which was providing meals for their brothers who were farming tomatoes.  Although not a sample survey, a smaller portion of women were able to reach their goals in the study period.


  • 1. ILO, 2012.
  • 2. This entire section is based on Proctor and Luchesi, 2012.
  • 3. Frankenberger et al, 2000.
  • 4. Anyidoho et al, 2012.
  • 5. Okali and Sumberg, 2012.