Make agriculture profitable, not sexy
Agriculture as a creator of job and wealth for the growing youth population is gaining traction in Kenya, and across the African continent. It is a high potential sector already contributing 24% of Kenya’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). If expanded and intensified, it can support a good proportion of the over 1 Million young people entering the labour force annually.
Despite the potential and excitement around it, Kenya is not doing enough or whatever being done is not having the effect it is supposed to on the core beneficiaries of agriculture. It doesn’t address the realities farmers grapple with.
According to the Kenya Integrated Household Budget Survey 2015-2016, overall poverty is higher in rural areas (40.1%) than in peri-urban (27.5%) and core-urban areas (29.4%). Farming is the economic mainstay of people in rural areas. Making agriculture sector work is not just about the youth. It is not working for those already engaged, why would the youth want to get in?
Can youth involvement in agriculture inject new thinking and innovation to catalyze growth? And, who is driving this agenda?
There is an attempt to create a crusade around making agriculture attractive for young people. Unfortunately, it is given a terribly warped description; to make agriculture sexy, driven by people who have little experience of farming besides. They so from the comfort of their flashy offices and a city-based version of modernity that avoids dust, mud, and with it anything reminiscent of rural life.
It has refused to stick because farming is about working with soil, the dirt that most urban dwellers work hard to avoid. So, if making agriculture sexy is to try and clean dirty soil from it, it won’t work.
Changing youth perception of agriculture has more to do with proving that indeed farming is profitable and creates decent well-paying jobs, and there is a strong structure and conducive environment to sustain the farming enterprise over many years. This ensures that those who get into it do so for the long haul.
For farming to make sense to young people, fundamental changes in the sector are required.
The average age of the Kenyan farmer is 60 years. This is demonstrated by numerous studies conducted to assess various agricultural issues across the country. What is surprising is time and time again opportunities are for in-depth discourse on the meaning of this ‘average age’ is lost because those in charge of driving the discussion are themselves approaching or above this age. This hinders their vision and they do not discern the sub-text.
This is not just about age. It is about who controls the factors of production; land, labour, capital, knowledge, and progressive policy to tackle inhibiting factors. How much of these are controlled by the youth? Without significant control their participation does not cause much change in the sector.
The Kenya Youth Agribusiness Strategy 2017 -2021 by the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, Fisheries and Irrigation, and the Council of Governors identifies these identify strategic areas of intervention to address the challenges that hamper meaning and sustainable youth participation in agribusiness. However, as long as policy is left to old men and women comfortably occupying public offices (for lack of a better description), then requisite changes will not be effected fast enough to affect the situation of young people who are waiting for opportunities in agriculture for their livelihoods. In addition, good policy without the resources and will to implement adds no value.
This demands for youth participation and mainstreaming of youth issues, particularly, at the County governments where issues are localized and case of successes can be fashioned easily and with less funding. It also allows for local nuances which can be replicated, enriched and funneled to enrich policy changes at the national level.
At the moment, Information and Communication Technology (ICT) is prescribed as the easiest one-fits-all solution, a narrow perception of youth involvement in agriculture that hinders value adding examination of the real issues.
This approach obvious ignores viability of ICT driven projects, many of the touted projects do not go beyond the trial phase, and if they go beyond, do not generate enough revenue to break even. They remain afloat because of grants, and are still cited as success stories. Hence, the necessity to develop a watertight criterion for evaluating success stories of youth in agriculture.
Looking ahead, it is time to put resources into building community social capital, with focus on youth, and harnessing resultant capacity into youth driven cooperatives that can benefit from the economies of scale and provide reliable markets and well-paying jobs.
While ICT is important, it is still viewed as a luxury in poor rural communities. So, focus on the basics and use ICT to deliver the goods and services that will raise incomes. This boosts the ability of people to embrace technology and use it to inject efficiency into their day-to-day farming activities and processes; improved incomes become the driving force for innovation and adoption of ICTs. The positive effect is compounded!
Farming will not be attractive when everything that can be produced locally is imported. Youth are encouraged to go into farming then they realize what they produce is not competitive in the free market; the cost of production is too high. Attempts to pass this cost to the consumer is thwarted by cheap imports. Without well-thought tax exemptions and incentives for agriculture inputs and commodities, sector growth is slowed and local farmers can’t compete, killing the very opportunities that were to be created.
It is also time to instill the values of honesty, openness and accountability in the conduct of farming business; to remove unfair, underhand business practices that disenfranchises youth, women and other players who do not have connections with those in positions of responsibility but have worked hard to bring quality to the market place.
Think of those who use their political influence to secure supply deals in public entities like parastatals, the manager of a retail chain skews the award of a procurement opportunity to a close relative and ends up overpricing the produce when other deserving supplies would have given more value for money had the process been handled in a transparent manner. Such practices have a bearing on the overall performance of agriculture, and other sectors of the economy.
Retooling the farming fraternity is imperative in making agriculture meaningful to the youth. This needs to happen at three key levels; training those transitioning from primary and secondary education, hands already providing labour in farms across the country, and on-the-job training for extension and advisory service personnel.
Support to and expansion of Technical and Vocational Education Training (TVET) is commendable. The next step is to open these facilities to those who do not have KCSE and KCPE certificates but can prove that they are currently engaged in a farming related enterprise.
In addition, give incentives to the centers to attract qualified training personnel so that raw trainees are released into the labour market. With qualified training staff, TVET institutions can actually run agri-based enterprises, which double up as hands-on technology centres. The Rift Valley Institute of Science and Technology (RVIST) dairy farm and Baraka Agricultural College Beekeeping enterprise are insightful cases worth replicating.
To complement these efforts, facilitate extension personnel to establish demonstration farms. It doesn’t make sense that those in-charge of advising farmers do not themselves earn from farming. The experience from running their own farming enterprises add great value to the advisory service their offer farmers, and they can use their farms to exhibit best practices to be adopted by farmers.