Youth are becoming increasingly disconnected from the agriculture sector, despite the evidence that there have been some efforts over the years to boost the engagement of young people in agriculture.
I recently raised a discussion with the EvalForward Community on the growing disconnect between youth and the agricultural sector, and how we can learn from evaluations to make strides forward in the area. The EvalForward discussion was stimulated through four key questions: Are evaluations relating to young people in agriculture making a difference or not? Do we actually see a shift in the way young people are included in agriculture? Are there lessons learned in relation to young people that we should be incorporating in all initiatives? What are the pitfalls and challenges?
Participants across many countries and contexts shared their experiences of working with youth in agriculture, the challenges they face, and lessons learned from evaluations of related projects. Several key themes emerged from the discussion:
- Acknowledge diversity. “Youth” is a collective term for young individuals. As with any population, there is not one experience relating to young people. There are many young individuals who are still passionately engaged in agriculture and even leading new and innovative approaches. Each program and project are different and depend on the location, the relative rural and urban economy and the type of agriculture under consideration. Therefore, the approaches to include and support young people in agriculture cannot be generalized and need specific attention. IFAD’s 2014 Evaluation Synthesis Report (ESR) reported that a lack in youth capacity building goes hand in hand with the increased need to ensure food security and to transform the agricultural sector into a more secure career choice.
- There are opportunities in shifting perceptions of agricultural work from ‘farm’ to ‘business’. Youth may not enter the agricultural sector due to their perception that it is for the uneducated, is strictly hard labour, and does not provide sufficient income. Transforming the perception of agriculture to an essential vocation that can incorporate new approaches and added value can reinvigorate interest in the agriculture sector. Learning from past experiences, participants brought light to the need to change the language we use when talking about agricultural work. Farming should be thought of as ‘agricultural entrepreneurship’, and farms should be considered as serious business operations. Participants suggested the need to include agricultural education in schooling curriculums to change this perception, whilst also suggesting the need for support and incentives to attract youth to the sector. One participant highlighted that “it is those who are involved in food production who make everything we value as civilized people possible to create and sustain. Hence, engagement in agricultural pursuits should be highly esteemed.” One participant highlighted that Indonesian youth are migrating to the agricultural sector in areas more aligned to their interests such as technical support and business operations.
- Increase specific investment in youth interests and development. Evaluation findings demonstrate there is a need to invest in youth interests, development, and capacities, to encourage youth to remain in or begin work in the agricultural sector. Many national programs do not specifically address rural youth interests so tend to overlook the potential for the agriculture sector. For instance, an IFAD review found that out of 57 of countries’ national youth policies, 17 did not include any mention of rural youth. As one participant explained, “developing countries will be able to take advantage of their youth dividend only if adequate investment is made in developing human capital of youth and in providing them with decent work opportunities”. As one participant highlighted, this points to the need for greater rural development and increased opportunities in the agricultural sector (see IFAD's 2019 Rural Development Report). Capacity building and increased skills development may encourage rural youth, particularly those less educated, to pursue agricultural work.
- Face the challenges and put in place deliberate strategies to address them. Declining engagement of young people in the agriculture sector is prevalent in many countries. Sustaining youth’s interests in the agricultural sector faces challenges, particularly in relation to higher expectation of work in urban areas that is potentially better paid and less demanding. One participant reflected upon his experience being discouraged by his family to become a coconut farmer because he had a tertiary education. Other participants in the discussion noted that many youth move away from agricultural areas in pursuit of ‘white collar’ jobs or the ‘bright lights’ of bigger cities, not only for better opportunities, but also to escape the conservative ways of life that they may experience in agricultural communities. A recent youth in agriculture project between FAO, IFAD and youth-NGO Mouvement International de la Juenesse Agricole et Rural Catholique (MIJARC) found that youth would be more inclined to engage in agricultural work if they were given support and opportunities to overcome agricultural barriers.
It is clear from the discussion thread and the findings from evaluations that it is possible to see youth following an agricultural pathway in the future. However, recommendations need to clearly communicate the lessons learned to improve understanding of what the specific young people in the targeted area and sector need and want. When it comes to a career in agriculture, specific efforts must be made to ensure that young people have the right capacity, knowledge, skills, and support services to actively engage in the agriculture sector long term.