February 15, 2018 | By Amy Sink Davies

Guest Commentary - Challenging Assumptions about Agriculture’s Disappearing Workforce

Editor's Note: As part of our new blog series, The Next Generation, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs is inviting a diverse group of experts to explore topics related to youth employement and agriculture in advance of  the 2018 Global Food Security Symposium.  Join the discussion using #GlobalAg, and tune in to the symposium live stream on March 21 and 22.

By Amy Sink Davies 

What drives youth decision-making?

As a mom to teenage boys, I ask myself some form of this question on a weekly basis – usually accompanied by a roll of the eyes and a bit of incredulity. But as an international development practitioner, I – and many of my colleagues – increasingly ponder this same question when it comes to designing practical and effective development interventions.

Demographics in developing countries are rapidly shifting; in Africa, nearly 200 million people are between ages 15 and 24 and the average age of farmers is 60. Combined with a strong perception that youth are increasingly turning away from agriculture as a livelihood, this presents a potentially alarming picture of the future of global food security.

But how much do we really understand youth decision-making – and how well are we incorporating this knowledge into our programming?


What We Know About Youth - and What We Don’t

Over the past several years, the development community has made a lot of assumptions about youth and their motivations, but without a lot of hard data to inform our programming. We do know that youth are migrating out of rural areas. There’s also ample evidence of Millennials in developing countries saying they aren’t interested in farming and that they prefer to live in cities and find jobs in offices or in the tech industry. But many of these studies present youth preferences before they leave the village. Data are much more limited in terms of what those people go on to do, or how they make decisions over time.

A key challenge in building out the evidence base on youth decision-making is that youth can be difficult to track down, especially given their increasing mobility. And even when you can track them down, it’s even harder to track them over time, so we don’t know what their migration patterns look like, what their goals are, or how to help them achieve those goals.

To help add to the body of scientific literature on this topic, in 2017 RTI conducted a survey using respondent-driven sampling to identify youth who had already migrated from rural counties in Kenya, figure out what drove them to increasingly urban and peri urban areas, and determine what’s influenced their level of success once there.

Starting with focus group discussions, we identified “seed” respondents for the survey. Seeds were asked to refer additional respondents within the target age range (18-35) who had migrated from a rural area in the same county. While similar to snowball sampling, this methodology allows us to track the relationships between respondents and conduct additional network analysis.


Youth Are Migrating, but is That Necessarily Bad?

As a recent CGIAR/Agrilinks blog pointed out, youth migration may not end up being such a bad thing, and many youth will migrate regardless of the agricultural opportunities available at home.

In our study, which included 2,400 Kenyan migrants, we found that 65 percent* of males from agricultural areas in Western Kenya who had migrated plan to return to their home villages to settle permanently. This tells a very different story from the conventional assumption that youth migration automatically means a “disappearing” agricultural workforce.

The same cannot be said for the male youth who came from Kenya’s pastoral areas—fewer than 20 percent from that group plan to return to their villages, even if they lose their current jobs in the city. This likely reflects the lower productive potential of the arid, pastoral lands in their home villages.

Migration may also be an important aspect of resilience within rural communities. According to our study, 85 percent of male and 65 percent of female migrants from Bungoma County send money back to their home villages. And interestingly, 81 percent of male migrants from Bungoma have provided financial assistance to others who have migrated from their home village, pointing to a potentially important aspect of a “safe landing” for migrating youth.

Agriculture’s “New Normal”?

Our research suggests that perhaps, instead of viewing youth migration as a decisive move out of agriculture, we should instead see it simply as part of their personal and professional trajectory. These might be individuals on the older end of the youth bracket (that is, those in their early 30s), and who need support with savings, business plans, or market linkages before returning. The future of the agricultural workforce might be gaining skills, work experience, and market connections in big towns and cities, which might actually benefit rural agriculture and food production. Others may need support to take advantage of off-farm employment – through related jobs in processing, agtech, or transportation, or as a growing number of “agri-preneurs.”

Programs such as USAID’s Kenya Youth Employment and Skills project that work with technical and vocational training institutes in secondary cities could be leverage points to achieve this. However, we still need a better understanding of the market and related employment opportunities that exist in villages for those who want to return, and what skills are required in order to be successful and productive in a return to rural, agricultural life. Our study has not traced these migrants over time, so we don’t know for sure how many of those who intend to return to their villages actually will.

What we do know is that it’s time to start adjusting to migration as a steady state, and think about ways we can make rural-urban transitions smoother for youth, so that wherever they end up, they have the support they need to make productive livelihood decisions and contribute to the growth and resilience of their economies and communities.


*All numbers included are based on preliminary results from the study.


The Global Food and Agriculture Program aims to inform the development of US policy on global agricultural development and food security by raising awareness and providing resources, information, and policy analysis to the US Administration, Congress, and interested experts and organizations.

The Global Food and Agriculture Program is housed within the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. The Council on Global Affairs convenes leading global voices and conducts independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

Support for the Global Food and Agriculture Program is generously provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.


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