March 20, 2018 | By

The Next Generation: Small Farms Mean Business

Chicago Council on Global Affairs is pleased to launch a new blog series, “The Next Generation,” to explore the challenges and opportunities of agricultural systems in a world with unprecedented numbers of young people. We will publish one post each week addressing these issues, and our series will culminate with the release of a new Council report at the 2018 Global Food Security Symposium. Join the discussion using #GlobalAg, and tune in to the symposium live stream on March 21.


By Laura Glenn O'Carroll

Agriculture holds the key to develop dynamic economies, a strong middle class, and decent work for the next generation—but only if the food system is managed effectively. For young people, this means developing not only technical skills, but also “soft skills,” such as communication, time management, and problem solving. These skills not only make young people more employable, they also help prepare them to create their own businesses. When young people think of farming as low-paying and limiting, the profession is understandably unappealing. But smallholder agriculture and agribusinesses can offer viable livelihoods, if proper investments are made. A key investment necessary for this process is human capital—the skills, expertise, and abilities of the farmers, workers, and business leaders themselves.

No Longer Business as Usual

Being successful in agriculture takes more than the technical knowledge of how to plant seeds, improve soil fertility, and harvest crops; modern farmers are business people, carefully tracking investments, managing relationships with buyers and suppliers, and supervising employees. All of these roles involve soft skills that are vital to move from subsistence farming to surplus agricultural production. These skills are also central to agriculture related businesses up and down the supply chain, including transportation, marketing, processing, and retail. As low- and middle-income countries become increasingly urbanized, rising middle class populations will increase demand for higher quality food products. In order for young people to take advantage of this business opportunity, they must have the necessary training and business acumen.
For many of the world’s young people, agriculture remains the largest employer in their community. For the world’s poor, agriculture and agribusiness are even more dominate. Strengthening the earning power of these occupations would mean increasing these individuals’ incomes, stimulating local demand and developing on- and off-farm economies. Agriculture’s contribution to development could be significantly increased by supporting the development of diverse agribusiness, which stimulate agricultural demand and create value-added products. Agricultural development also fosters the creation of small and medium enterprises (SMEs) which offer accessible entry points for young people. But without a new cohort of workers and leaders with the necessary interpersonal skills, adaptability, team work, and time management, agribusiness will lose out on a generation of talent.

Education Beyond Technical Skills

For years, policy leaders and civil society have worked to expand access to education for low income people throughout the world. These efforts have led to gains in primary school completion rates, from 81 percent in 2000 to 92 percent in 2012. This increase in education has had real impacts: each additional year of schooling raises average annual GDP growth by 0.37 percent. However, as primary education has become more widely accessible, increased scrutiny has focused on the quality of the education. It is not just enough for students to be in class—they need to actually learn skills and knowledge that will help them succeed as adults. Nearly 250 million children around the world still cannot read or write, even after spending three or more years in school. Even as attendance increases, lack of teacher preparation, excessively large class sizes, and outdated teaching methodologies, such as a focus on memorization, are holding students back.
Agricultural programs can integrate soft skills education into existing curriculums. For example, 4-H Ghana supports youth development through a dynamic “learning by doing” educational model. Instead of focusing just on specific technical skills, 4-H Ghana seeks to develop self-directed, confident youth with the necessary life skills to succeed in a variety of environments. Enrolled students develop their own projects, through which they learn improved agricultural techniques, public speaking, time management, and more.

Still Young, but Out of School

In many agricultural areas throughout the world, young people may not attend classes—they may have dropped out, or never attended, or be delayed due to work and family responsibilities. In order to prepare all young people in agriculture for professionalized roles, programs must reach out to these individuals, as well. One program that addresses this issue was created through a partnership between the MasterCard Foundation and SNV. This program, Opportunities for Youth Employment, specifically reaches out to rural, out-of-school youth in Tanzania, Rwanda, and Mozambique with training that builds their skills in collaboration with private sector companies. The enrolled young people are trained in technical, business, and life skills that make them highly employable or prepared to begin their own businesses. In Tanzania, young people were trained in organic vegetable growing, an accessible model because of the low start-up costs. Students learn both technical skills, like creating compost, but also confidence-building soft skills, like leading a group.
Young people are adaptable, motivated, and hungry for success. If given opportunities to succeed, the next generation can change the world. To find out how, stay tuned for the Global Food Security Symposium and the release of our new report, Youth for Growth: Transforming Economies through Agriculture on March 22 with recommendations for global action to develop an agricultural system that serves the world of tomorrow.


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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