Digital solutions work for youth in agriculture. They are cost effective and can empower young farmers at scale, for impacts, and on their own terms.
The increasing size of Africa’s young, working age population – set to grow 37% by 2030 – holds promise for a major boost in economic productivity and growth known as the demographic dividend. However, the payout will depend on ensuring productive employment for youth, particularly in agriculture, since farming is the primary source of income and jobs. Learnings from the Mercy Corp Agrifin Accelerate Program (AFA) suggest how digital platforms and customized approaches can broaden employment and earnings opportunities for African youth in agriculture – and do so affordably, at scale, and with high impact potential.
Fully 38% of smallholder farmers are youth aged 16-34 years, according to the Comparative Analysis of Smallholder Farmers in Kenya, Zambia, and Tanzania conducted by AFA with Nathan Associates. Young people are technologically engaged, but they need help migrating from the subsistence-style farming of their parents to a more productive approach to farming as a business.
A recent review of AFA’s multiple activities aimed at expanding and enhancing digitally enabled solutions for smallholder farmers offers new insights for supporting youth in agriculture. Conducted by Dahlberg, the study investigated 28 AFA programs and 35 AFA documents. It included six in-depth interviews with AFA program staff, plus supplemental desk research on user-centered design for mobile agriculture, youth programming, and the Gates Psychometric Segmentation Data Set.
What holds youth farmers back and what spurs them forward?
The review showed that young farmers face tighter time constraints than older adults and have greater difficulty accessing land, financing, practical skills, markets, inputs, and input-specific extension services. The challenges are more acute for young women farmers, who are even less likely to control resources, be able to engage in lucrative value chains, or exercise autonomy.
However, there are strategic opportunities for youth in agriculture. With rising education levels, their preferences are shifting toward the production of high-value commodities that can be raised on minimal land, such as horticultural crops, poultry, rabbits, honey, and zero-grazing dairy products. Young people also are poised to take part in agricultural value addition and business opportunities (e.g., cold-chain development, processing) beyond direct commodity production.
The young generation of smallholders wants to be connected and use technology to enhance productivity and profits; for example, accessing digital services to find the best market prices, keep records, and get information on new farming practices, technologies, or forms of pest or disease control. Through entrepreneurship and youth networks, they are aspiring to access both formal employment and agricultural self-employment, including digitally-enabled labor markets.
How can the private sector and development actors support farming’s new wave?
Learnings from AFA’s research and experience offer these recommendations:
- Develop digital platforms with bundled services designed for young farmers. Bundling spreads and lowers risks for providers, encourages wider and more active adoption by users, creates greater efficiencies, and generates valuable real-time data on youth – including digital data trails to help them to qualify for financial and other services (see Figure 1).
- Include tools that save time and use less land. Youth are drawn to modern farming methods (e.g., using drip irrigation, greenhouse farming, hydroponics) that intensify production and reduce drudgery.
- Promote and support tech-enabled jobs driving climate-smart agriculture and new methods around input systems, soil health, mechanization, logistics, agro-processing, post-harvest management, sales/marketing, and use of data and field research.
- Focus on building meaningful opportunities for young women farmers that address societal constraints. Pair them with mentoring and youth empowerment strategies to build their roles in viable agribusiness and as household financial managers. For example, group-based interventions, micro-savings/layaway products, and financial management tools help women build pathways to increase and own productive resources.
- Leverage the potentials of youth networks and ambassadors. Peer-to-peer learning and sharing by example is very effective with youth if the people and materials are relevant to their contexts. Networks and educational relationships can make youths more competitive in agricultural production and business. Platforms such as Lynk offer integrated solutions; for example building on youth expertise through training and standards building, matchmaking to align interests with opportunities, and offering management support to help them stay on track.
- Address information and skills gaps through interactive, farmer-driven e-learning on interfaces that work for youth. Examples may include gamification, ubiquitous platforms like WhatsApp and Facebook, or bundled platforms like Arifu and Equity.
Addressing the youth in agriculture is critical to ensuring sustainable employment growth, food security, and development in Africa’s emerging markets. Digital solutions resonate with youth and their desire to drive meaningful advances in African agriculture. Further AFA research points to the need to design solutions for the diversity of youth personas and pathways, and is the subject of Part 2 of this post.
Valerie Gwinner; Consultant, Mercy Corps AgriFin Accelerate
Lucy Kioko; Agricultural Expert Lead, Mercy Corps AgriFin Accelerate
Andrew Karlyn; Strategy Lead, Monitoring, Evaluation, research and Learning, Mercy Corps AgriFin Accelerate.