In recent years, development practitioners and agriculture experts have been sounding the alarm bells about a looming threat to global food security: Farmers in lower-income countries are aging, and the youth who stand to take their place seem to want nothing to do with agriculture. This is a disturbing prospect, as current estimates tell us that we’ll need to produce at least 60 percent more food by 2050 to feed our growing global population. If the next generation of food producers is disinterested in food security and agriculture, who will take on this critical task of feeding the planet?
Add to this the fact that the economic plight of youth is closely linked to similarly complex trends in migration and urbanization, and we have a recipe for a major development challenge—and an opportunity.
A number of remarkable factors are contributing to youths’ rejection of agriculture—and none of them are inherently negative. First, the youth population in many countries is simply ballooning—60 percent of Africa’s population is between 15-25 years of age, for example. Second, young people are faced with daunting challenges to taking up agriculture-related activities: low wages, lack of access to capital, few land ownership opportunities, and scant access to advanced training and skill-building in the latest agricultural advances, to name a few. And third, youth from all backgrounds and countries today are more likely to be exposed to a wider range of media platforms, which, combined with other influences, helps them to dream bigger than they’ve ever dared before. The conventional wisdom holds that when youth, in the developing world and beyond, weigh their options for the future, back-breaking work in the hot sun to eke out a subsistence living in good years simply cannot compete with the lure of the big city. That said, economic growth and technology innovations are creating new, diverse opportunities for off-farm employment, of which many youth are unaware.
But there may be even more to this story. As the saying goes, we need to “meet people where they are.” If we don’t know where youth in developing countries are—geographically, mentally, financially—how can we truly help meet their needs?
My organization, RTI International, like many others, is partnering with USAID, implementing partners, and local institutions to help address youth unemployment through a number of development programs, as well as through initiatives like the Youth Voices project. But we also know that more, original research is needed to build the evidence base around the issues confronting today’s youth, particularly in food security and agriculture. This year, we’re adding to that evidence base by orchestrating a rigorous mixed-method study regarding youth migration in Kenya, the results of which will help inform future development programming in the areas of youth livelihoods and resilience. Our work is focusing on what drives youths’ decision making around when to migrate from their home, as well as the barriers and motivations to embracing or rejecting food production, processing, transport, marketing, and related activities. We expect our results to be available later this year.
We don’t yet have the “silver bullet” answer to engaging youth in agriculture and food security. We need to be prepared to accept the complexity of the real world where a solution that works in one country barely moves the needle in another context. And, we need to be realistic that our goal should not necessarily be to keep youth on farms. (As a development professional and a father, I can tell you that trying to convince youth to do something they’re not inclined to do is like rowing a boat upstream.) We as a development community may simply need to diversify our approach to fit emerging trends and differing environments.
Ultimately, knowing more about how and why youth make their decisions—including social, economic, and cultural factors—can only strengthen our approaches as development practitioners. If we don’t strive to learn more in addition to doing more, we’re simply placing bets, albeit well-intentioned ones, on the future of our global food system.