Three Big Questions Before Engaging Youth in Agriculture Transformation Agenda

Pupils harvest kales from their 4-H project,Mbagathi Primary School.
Photo by Jamila Abass
At the AGRF2016 IDRC sponsored event, Dr. Wanjiru Kamau Rutenberg set the scene for the discussion on deeper questions to ask if we are to meaningfully engage African youth in agriculture. In this article, I elaborate some of hers and other presenters’ questions. The emphasis here is that, it is not just about agriculture being a source of employment for a growing youth population, but it’s also questioning what the real issues are with a youth bulge and how we can tackle them within an agricultural transformation agenda. It is about unpacking the Africa rising narrative, questioning the contribution of agricultural growth to inclusive economic growth, devising innovative ways of closing the gender gap, and measuring agricultural growth relative to other sectors, and hence, better understanding how to seize the youth opportunities therein. Here are some of these explained:-

First, understand what Africa’s transformation really means for prosperity and sustainability. Whereas statistics from the AfDB show that agriculture is the second largest industrial sector in Africa projected to grow by 6% p.a. by 2030, an important question is yet to be addressed: Is this growth or extraction? Is this a factor of prosperity or it’s just a new phenomenon of growth following the old path of extraction and scramble for African natural resources? Are African agricultural policies structuring this growth to ensure that it is first beneficial to African economies before exporting nutrients from the African soil to the rest of the world?

Second, speaking to those outside the agriculture sector if we really want to achieve inclusive transformation, therefore asking: Which sectors complement and/or compete with growth of the agricultural sector? While the agriculture sector is growing, other sectors such as construction and transport are growing even faster meaning there is need for diversification and complementarity. This growth must also be understood in the context of increasing food imports into Africa even as claims are made of African agricultural growth. How can we reverse food imports while sustaining agricultural growth?

Third, view agricultural growth in the context of inclusive transformation and therefore ask: Is our agricultural growth a magnifier of inequality? It is important that countries position themselves so that this moment of agricultural growth is also a moment to fix the structures of socio-economic inequality that already exist and result in inclusive transformation. Does our current trend of agricultural growth addresses issues of poverty alleviation and improving the livelihoods of those at the bottom of the pyramid and the marginalized? In a particular context of women and youth, it will be fundamentally crucial to apply the concept of intersectionality that allows us to appreciate women and youth contribution within a large context of rapid transformations on the continent. For instance, we already know that closing the gender gap would increase agricultural productivity by 30%, and particularly would attract more young women.

In the light of these three issues, where do we then see the opening and closing of youth opportunities in agriculture? Such opportunities have to be contextualized in the ongoing changes such as the growing Africa-China trade, the expansion of free trade areas in Africa, urbanization and the growing middle class, technological advancements in Africa as well as opportunities provided by democratization in Africa. Importantly, all actors must be willing to recognize and invest in capturing the responsibility, alertness, imagination, and willingness of young people to take action.

A study on expanding business opportunities for young people in agriculture by USIU found that young people are three times more likely to be unemployed. The same study, however, also found out that, when young people are provided with a set of activities, resources and mentoring, they change their behaviour towards becoming entrepreneurial and may even engage in other agriculture-related activities such as research and policy. In fact, women when supported emerge more resilience than men do, and young people are more likely to use their personal savings and borrow from family to start a business.

Our understanding of youth aspirations offers us new insights over the claim that young people are sitting down waiting for things to be done for them. This idea of passive waithood is far from truth as many researchers have shown. In fact, they exhibit a desire to emulate others who are making it in life. However, such testimonials and mentors are few in the agriculture sector, leaving most youth to imagine agriculture as an uncool venture, and the outsiders to understand young people as uninterested in agriculture.

Therefore, we have to rethink this ‘uncool’ nature of agriculture. Fundamentally,  what would we get by unpacking the ‘uncoolness’ and stigmatization of agriculture?


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