Reframing the ‘young people – agriculture nexus’


Are young people’s life aspirations and the vision of a dynamic agricultural sector in conflict?

Policy interest in the ‘young people – agriculture nexus’ in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), when it is evident, is framed by a combination of narratives relating to: food security and the importance of agriculture to the national economy; modernisation of the agricultural sector; ageing of the farm population; young people as ‘the nation’s future’; young people’s changing life aspirations; unemployment and underemployment; increased vulnerability of young people associated with rural – urban migration (e.g. STDs, drugs, crime); and the poor living conditions and employment prospects that rural young people encounter when they migrate to urban.

A number of framing assumptions can be identified including:

  • Agriculture has the potential to provide young people and others in rural areas with a reasonable livelihood and opportunities for accumulation.
  • Young people, the agricultural sector, the rural economy and rural society overall would be better off if rural young remained in rural areas and worked in agriculture, even if this sits within a broader strategy of livelihood diversification.
  • Young people may have difficulty accessing the land they need to build a reasonable livelihood from family farming; in addition, they often lack the knowledge, skills and/or capital required to establish an agriculture-related enterprise.
  • To be effective agricultural programs must be targeted specifically toward young people.
  • In general, ‘agriculture’ = farming = on-farm activities = crop and livestock production.

None of the assumptions distinguish between different categories of young people and especially differences between young men and young women; nor do they highlight the differences between places and situations (e.g. peaceful, conflict or post-conflict; dry or well-watered; quality of natural resources; proximity to market opportunities etc).

The policy prescriptions that are usually associated with framings based on these assumptions include:

  • Increasing the profitability of farming through: new productivity enhancing technology (i.e. investing in agricultural research; establish regulatory frameworks); improved input and output markets (i.e. making credit available; train agri-dealers; use ‘structured demand’ approaches; open domestic markets to competition); improve information availability (i.e. investing in extension services; information and communication technologies (ICTs)).
  • Improving the availability of credit to young people so they can start agriculture-related enterprises.
  • Undertaking land reform, land consolidation etc.
  • Improving agricultural training and education at all levels.
  • Improving infrastructure, health and other services in rural areas.

Here we suggest that framing the ‘young people – agriculture nexus’ in this way is highly problematic because:

  • It takes insufficient account of the historical drivers of change that have resulted in the long-running and substantial exodus of young people from some rural areas. A lack of employment opportunities and various forms and effects of civil conflict are two of these drivers (although is it also true that at some times and in some situations economic and/or civil crises in urban areas stimulate movement back to rural areas and re-engagement with agriculture).
  • It is based on the contested assumption that in the coming decades, over the length and breadth of SSA, even without a significant increase in scale, family farming will be able to generate sufficient income and accumulation opportunities to satisfy young people’s aspirations and consumption preferences.
  • It puts nearly all the emphasis on primary production of crops and livestock, ignoring the employment, income and value-added opportunities associated with the other functions within the agri-food sector (i.e. marketing, processing, retail, catering, research and so on).
  • It ignores the trend seen throughout the world that with increasing urbanisation and associated changing food consumption and production patterns, employment opportunities tend to shift from primary production – farming – to these other functions within the broader agri-food sector.

It is in this light that the members of the FAC Young People and Agriculture Theme propose an alternative framing of the ‘young people – agriculture nexus’ as the basis for FAC’s work on young people. This ‘forward-looking, agri-food framing’ is itself based on several key assumptions:

  • Urbanisation will be a continuing (although unevenly experienced) feature of development in SSA; as will rising education levels (associated with investments geared to achieving MDG 2) and rising aspirations among both rural and urban young people.
  • Driven by health and safety regulations, evolving consumer preferences, export opportunities and inward investment, larger-scale, formal enterprises will emerge and/or grow in importance in trading, transformation and retail activities within the agri-food sector in SSA, particularly in urban areas.
  • In terms of employment opportunities the centre of gravity of the agri-food sector will shift from primary production to processing, retail, catering and the like. This implies a change in the type and level of education and skills that will be required within the sector. It also follows that an increasing proportion of employment opportunities within the agri-food sector will be located in peri-urban and urban areas as opposed to rural areas.

With these assumptions in mind an alternative narrative around the ‘young people – agriculture nexus’ can be sketched-out as follows:

Over the next two decades the agri-food sector in SSA will undergo significant transformation which will result in both challenges and opportunities for young people, depending on who and where they are. In terms of challenges at the primary production end, smaller-scale family farmers and those farming in difficult circumstances or far from markets will continue to struggle to generate sufficient food and income to satisfy their and their families’ needs and aspirations. People – largely women – involved in small-scale food marketing, transformation, retail and catering will find it increasingly difficult to compete with individuals and firms operating at a larger scale and with more efficient technology.

On the opportunities side, if they can meet demanding supply chain requirements, producers of high value commodities and/or with ready access to urban markets may benefit from new patterns of demand and new market channels. The effects of climate change, food price fluctuations and increasing policy attention to food security may also help make the production of staple crops a more attractive proposition. But perhaps more importantly for young people (from both rural and urban areas), the agri-food sector will become an increasingly important source of formal employment. There will be a significant expansion of employment opportunities in food marketing, processing, retail, catering, research, input sales etc. However, these jobs will generally require higher levels of education and different skills, and many will be located in or near urban areas.

The agri-food sector will provide jobs ranging from grading, packing and product preparation in industrial-type environments, through shelf stacking and driving, to research, advertising, accounting, management and so on. There will also be increasing numbers of jobs providing goods and services to agricultural producers and other actors in the sector. While there will continue to be many on-farm employment opportunities, the nature of these will change: they will increasingly be as employees as opposed to independent family farmers, and the ability to read and use machinery and chemicals safely will become more important. Over time the proportion of jobs in the agri-food sector that are on-farm and involved directly with crop or livestock production will decline.

Exactly how this plays out for particular groups of young people in particular situations and places will depend on the interplay between a myriad of personal, social, political, economic and environmental factors. Civil conflict is one factor that cannot be ignored, and we should expect the dynamics, pathways and outcomes around the ‘young people – agriculture nexus’ will be different in stable, conflict or post-conflict contexts.

The questions and hypotheses arising from these framing assumptions and alternative narrative are:

  • How do the alternative framing assumptions and narrative relate to existing policy agendas and processes, and in what ways are young people being brought into these policy processes?

Hypothesis 1: Framing assumptions and policy processes addressing the ‘young people – agriculture nexus’ direct the selection of policy options towards those whose main objective is to keep young people engaged in family farming.

Hypothesis 2: Models and mechanisms used to increase young people’s participation in agri-food related policy processes have an impact on the dynamics of these processes.

  • What is the evidence that the agri-food sector is changing in these ways, and what is the implication for employment and training for young people?

Hypothesis 3: “Hot spots” of growth and technical and/or institutional innovation are more likely to be found in the ‘modern’, ‘quality’ and export-oriented parts of the agri-food sector.

Hypothesis 4: Employment opportunities open to young people in the ‘modern’, ‘quality’ and export-oriented parts of the agri-food system are better remunerated and offer better opportunities for career development than those in other parts of the sector.

Hypothesis 5: Education and training currently on offer to young people are considered relevant or valuable by potential employers in the agri-food sector.

  • What the experiences and perceptions of young people regarding the changes and opportunities in the agri-food sector?

Hypothesis 6: In general (i.e. across social and economic groups and situations), with increasing levels of education, family farming becomes less attractive as a livelihood choice for rural young people.

Hypothesis 7: In general (i.e. across social and economic groups and situations), young people from (or who have migrated into) successful farming areas are more likely to remain in family farming than those from less successful areas.

Hypothesis 8: In rural areas where it is / was important, civil conflict acts as a strong driver of the departure of (relatively educated and well-off) young people’s from family farming.

In the coming year the work of FAC’s Young People and Agriculture theme will be structures around these hypotheses.

Comments to: Jim Sumberg (