Empowering young farmers and agro-entrepreneurs

Youth should be part of an inclusive (agricultural) development policy. This is necessary to secure stable food supplies, and to innovate the agricultural sector. National governments, private parties, donors and development agencies all have their role to play to involve and empower young farmers and entrepreneurs in agricultural value chains.

A number of developments will have a major impact on the future of our global food system. Firstly, today 1.8 billion people are between the ages of 10 and 24. Approximately nine out of ten of these young people live in less developed countries, where the young population is also growing fastest. Secondly, in the world’s least developed countries, every year 15 million young people enter the labour force in which the majority of workers face unemployment, underemployment or vulnerable employment. Thirdly, youth is withdrawing from the agricultural sector. The average age of farmers in developing countries is between 50 and 60 years. Fourthly, the aspirations of today’s youth in developing countries are signalled by a mass withdrawal from the rural areas in favour of urban opportunities and lifestyles.

Any debate on the future of our food system needs to be set within the context of above-mentioned dynamics. Over half of the African population is expected to remain rural until 2050. Small and medium farms in developing countries continue to be the world’s major food producers. Moreover, under traditional farming systems, crop yields decline. Older farmers are less likely to adopt new technologies needed to increase productivity in a sustainable environment-friendly way. More knowledge and experience is essential to support a new generation of capable, skilled producers and entrepreneurs to grow, process and trade the crops and commodities the world depends on. Young people provide the opportunity to secure stable supplies, and to innovate the agricultural sector. As such, public and private parties, donor agencies and NGOs investing in sustainable agricultural development would do well to consider young people as crucial stakeholders in their cooperation initiatives. This means that a truly inclusive development policy takes ‘age’ into consideration.

To seriously involve youth, national governments and donors have to put youngsters at the centre of their ‘theories of change’ that aim to strengthen agricultural sectors. The right questions have to be asked about the roles, aspirations, capacities and constraints of young people in agriculture. Ultimately this leads to a better understanding of their situation. A valuable first step would be to allocate resources for action research, to find out which factors move young farmers and agro-entrepreneurs. Job creation in the downstream parts of value chains (trade, logistics, environmental practices, insurance, communication, etc) can make youth realise that agribusiness can be an intellectually stimulating and economically viable career, radically changing its image.

Moreover, a growing number of companies and standards organisations are looking for affordable and scalable ways to assess the sustainability of agricultural supply chains. The private sector can better anticipate to the challenges and opportunities of young farmers and agro-entrepreneurs by including indicators to monitor youth participation in supply chains in PM&E initiatives (as done by Seas of Change Performance Measurement community).

Youth often faces poor access to land, finance and information. Young farmers and agro-entrepreneurs would benefit strongly from innovative financing (soft loans, micro-franchising, etc) and up-to-date technological training curricula. The Coffee Toolkit by the Sustainable Coffee Program gives some good guidelines on how to realise this. Use of internet and mobile phone channels can promote agriculture, educate and train young people in agriculture who are unable to attend higher education. Some great examples to learn from are YPARDSlow Food Youth Network, and Mkulima Young in Kenya. Other examples which might appeal to youth can be found in projects on urban farming, to address the employment challenges of young women and men in cities, and that of feeding an expanding urban population. Another idea is supporting projects with a prominent place for cooperatives and/or farmer field schools in which young farmers get the opportunity to raise their voices.

The Seas of Change initiative is looking forward to continue this discussion in a creative and refreshing way, in order to contribute to a sustainable future of our food.