Trees, Agroforestry, and the possibilities for new/young farmers in the twenty first century
In the past five years or so, there has been an emphasis for African countries to create opportunities for young people in farming, mainly for employment and food security purposes. Many 'youth in agriculture' narratives have advanced the notion that, given the high levels of education among youth, coupled with their numbers, there is a high likelihood that they could drive agricultural transformation by adopting new and sustainable agricultural innovations among them, organic farming, agroforestry, and climate-smart agriculture (CSA) among others. In fact, the establishment of the Alliance for Climate-Smart Agriculture was consequently followed by massive mobilization of young people to engage in CSA, resulting in initiatives by organizations such as FANRPAN, FARA, SNV, among others.
Given the increasing impacts of development on the agricultural sector, the declining land productivity, effects of climate change on agriculture, and the increasing demand for high value foods due to rising middle class in the urban areas, how practical are these claims on the African continent. To what extent can new/young farmers engage in sustainable practices such as agroforestry to drive agricultural transformation while improving their economic and social well-being? Some countries like Kenya and Nigeria have massively increased their campaigns and investments towards youth in agriculture programmes such as, Mkulima Young, YFarm, AgriVijana Loans Programme, IITA Youth Agripreneurs among many others listed here. These programmes address attitude change; showcase success stories of young farmers; provide agricultural information sharing platforms; facilitate access to input and output markets; facilitate savings and cooperative organizations; and offer technical and business skills training and innovative means of accessing agricultural land.
However, in my 2014 doctoral fieldwork, I found out that the adoption and/or transition of young farmers into agroforestry was inhibited by several factors. Firstly, in addition to shrinking agricultural land sizes, most young farmers lack land tenure rights which is a pre-requisite to their choice of agricultural practices. Tree growing and agroforestry were only practiced by young farmers (mostly male and married) who either owned land or had inherited land from their parents. Secondly, profit maximization overrode the sustainability goal leading young people to opt for approaches that guaranteed quick returns in short period of time over the long-term consequences of their practices on the agricultural productive resources (land, soil, water, biodiversity etc). In addition, their choice of farming practices directly linked to anticipated market value, availability, and accessibility. Thirdly, the lack of technical knowledge and skills in agroforestry practices is a major factor limiting extent to which young people consider adopting these approaches. These and other factors such as financing, the availability for the germplasm, suitability of land for certain agroforestry practices and social factors among others, made the probability of adopting agroforestry among young farmers very low low.
Whereas agroforestry promises increased crop productivity, enhances land fertility, agro-biodiversity, and resilience of agro-ecosystems, most of these practices require a land tenure rights of which most young people lack. Even among older farmers, land tenure remains a significant challenge in the extent to which they adopt certain agricultural practices. On the other hand, most young people engage in agriculture as a survival strategy during periods of un(der)employment, and as such, profits from agroforestry products such as fruits, timber, fodder, and firewood do not fall in their category of short-term investment period of three to five months. Furthermore, most agroforestry practices are labour intensive and take long before any products can be harvested and profits realized. This renders agroforestry, often an unsustainable first priority agricultural investment. Thirdly, there is limited knowledge among most new/young farmers on agroforestry and thus, they often to opt for conventional practices involving intensified use of resources- water, insecticides, pesticides and mono-cropping. All these limitations pose a huge challenge to the future of agroforestry and that of youth livelihoods.
Therefore, our critical question should be addressed through policy and structural changes on how to resolve these systemic challenges so that more young people have access to an enabling environment through which they can adopt agroforestry practices as viable agribusiness models. Understanding both the policy interplays and socio-economic factors inhibiting meaningful investments of young people in the agriculture/agroforestry sector is then a priority.