Surprise surprise, young people don’t want to stay on farms

Tanzanian farmer compares maize yields
A farmer in Dhaka, Bangladesh.
A farmer in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

Increasingly fewer young people in developing countries are aspiring to lives as farmers.

The trend is not new, nor is it a problem faced only by poorer nations. What we now have is a better sense as to why it is happening.

Jennifer Leavy and Naomi Hossain, of the Institute for Development Study, conducted interviews with nearly 1,500 people in 10 countries in 2012. Unsurprisingly, they found that young people aspire to “formal sector employment and modern urban lifestyles.” The interviews led to four findings:

  • Youth want to be better educated to get good jobs;
  • Farming is mentally and physically challenging;
  • Youth don’t consider agriculture as a future in part because of a lack of access to inputs and land;
  • Changing norms, especially for women, are creating new opportunities to seek education, employment, etc.

Education is one of the key components, but that does not necessarily lead to employment. In many instances, government jobs were found to be the most desirable for their stability. The trouble is that there are only so many and there are countries where bribes are necessary to reach such positions. Parent after parent expresses the desire for their children to live a life better than their own.

“I have hopes that my younger children in school will score good marks, get admission to university and will have good jobs in offices. My prayer is they get permanent jobs and live better lives than mine,” said a 50 year old mother from Nairobi.

The authors say that something can be done to make agriculture more appealing to young people. They recommend improved public policies, role models that show what success in agriculture looks like and better support for farmers in regards to access to inputs and markets to sell what is cultivated.

“It is clear that in a time when food prices are volatile, such policies would help to reduce or mitigate other areas of uncertainty in farming and would go some way towards creating the kind of dynamic agricultural sector that will drive poverty-reducing growth as well as attracting the ‘talent’ of future generations,” concludes the paper.

However, there are criticisms of the belief that efforts should focus on diverting youth towards farming. In a blog post citing the Institute for Development Study working paper, University of Minnesota agriculture research Marc Bellemare pointed to an argument made by economist Paul Collier in 2008.

The first giant that must be slain is the middle- and upper-class love affair with peasant agriculture. With the near-total urbanization of these classes in both the United States and Europe, rural simplicity has acquired a strange allure…Peasants, like pandas, are to be preserved.  But distressingly, peasants, like pandas, show little inclination to reproduce themselves. Given the chance, peasants seek local wage jobs, and their offspring head to the cities. This is because at low-income levels, rural bliss is precarious, isolated, and tedious.

He proceeds to make the argument for more commercialized agriculture, thus enabling a more efficient and cheaper food supply that will allow the ‘peasant’ class to seek other forms of employment.

The English enclosure movement, he says, is an example of how creating rules for large scale farming helped to spark development in England. Modern and large-scale agriculture comes with its own baggage.

Campaigners for smallholder farmers, like Oxfam, are concerned by the possibility of people losing their homes and having their land taken from under their feet. Sweetheart deals between governments in Africa and businesses have enabled land grabs. They worry that deals like the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition initiative are putting corporate interests over individual farmers.

The G8-backed program has come under increasing scrutiny as it aims to lift 50 million people out of poverty by 2022 through improved agriculture. A report from the Guardian in February found that farmers were largely left out of the discussions. Ten African countries made changes to rules and policies that enabled more outside agriculture investments.

Additionally, some of the proposed crops, such as cotton, have little to do with improving food security. The New Alliance has seen opposition since its inception in 2012. Civil society in Africa and international activists have warned of the potential harm caused by the program. The roughly 18 months that have passed since its inception have not helped to subdue the concerns.

“The practical results of the recent surge in investment in African agriculture expose the empty rhetoric of African food security. Blatant land grabs are well known across the continent,” said a letter from the African Centre for Biodiversity.

“Mega projects such as the ProSavanna project in northern Mozambique are displacing farmers from their lands and imposing large-scale production structures for export. Favourable investment terms (for example tax free zones and laws on repatriation of profits) undermine even the questionable benefits increased foreign exchange brings.”

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.