Is The Youth Included In The Future of Kenya’s Agricultural Sector?

The role of agriculture in the country’s economy is critical, contributing to about 25% of Kenya’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). The sector covers 65% of exports and employs about 60% of Kenya’s labour force.

Kenya is capable of producing a variety of agricultural goods across the country’s varied climates and topographies. Its counties are suited to the production of different commodities, and they can pair their comparative advantages with technological innovation to improve production and value addition. This can unlock and strengthen intercounty and international trade.

The sustainability of this growth is greatly dependent on the enthusiastic participation in agricultural value chains by the youth. The working population in the agricultural sector, however, ranges between 50 and 65 years in age, with youth engagement being shockingly low.

Why Young People Are Not Participating

Despite rapid growth in innovation in other sectors, agriculture in Kenya predominantly holds on to traditional modes of practice. The slow pace of innovation in labour-intensive agricultural production makes the activity seem like ‘dirty work’ that is not any more lucrative than more modern income generation opportunities.

Young people have expressed great disinterest in the sector over the years. This negative attitude is a significant factor hindering their effective participation in the sector and is a result of the following:

  1. The lack of access to factors of production by youth in the sector. Most youths lack access to capital such as land to initiate or sustain agricultural ventures. The few who get the opportunities still face financial constraints to their investment in the activities. Without investment in innovative methods, the suboptimal productivity rate of current traditional methods and tools in use limits returns for those doing agricultural projects.
  2. Negative societal perceptions. A lot of stigma surrounds farming as it is perceived as an activity carried out by the old, unambitious or unsophisticated. This misconception is unabated by current primary and secondary school curricula as agriculture is no longer a trained subject in many Kenyan schools. With schools being the context in which young people discover career opportunities and learn applicable skills, the idea of agriculture as a viable option for their future career choices is obfuscated from many in their formative years.
  3. Limited information on income opportunity links in the agricultural value chain process. Due to the low amount of demand-based research done to drive advancements in technology and methods in the sector, there is limited information on how to add value to agricultural commodities. This lack of innovation continuously makes the sector unattractive to the youth looking for sophisticated jobs.

These factors perpetuate the perception that occupations within the agricultural sector are undesirable. Youths, in both urban and rural settings, underestimate their potential to earn by participating either in farming or in complementary roles such as providing related services. value-addition, and marketing operations.

This seems to be the case for many youths because the sector is neither innovative nor structured to meet their needs and overcome the challenges they face.

Why We Need To Attract Youth Into Agriculture

70% of Kenya’s population is below the age of 30 with the median age being 19 years. Despite being the largest East African economy, Kenya has the highest number of unemployed youths. The country’s economy is not creating jobs fast enough to absorb the incipient generation of workers. This is especially true of the mostly agriculture-based rural economies from where youths tend to migrate into urban areas in search of employment.

In the face of the potential that the agricultural sector has to close the youth unemployment gap, the fact that young people feel the need to migrate out of agricultural areas is a problem. In this case, the lack of job opportunities in the sector is not a more significant issue than the disinterest expressed by the youth about it. We need to tackle the factors contributing to the negative perception of agriculture by the nation’s young people.

Kenya is the second country in Africa to roll out 5g connectivity, yet the value and excitement of such innovative technologies have barely been felt on farms. The lack of innovation not only makes the sector unattractive to youths, but also makes the sector underproductive for those involved.

Admittedly, innovation in areas other than agriculture attracts young people to play a part in growing those sectors. This decreases reliance on agriculture for employment and diversifies skillsets in the country’s workforce, and births  entrepreneurship ecosystems which help modernise the economy.

Why, then, should the same rigour in innovation be extended to agriculture—the largest economic sector—in Kenya and Africa? The real problem with agricultural apathy among the next generation of workers is that:

  1. Despite the tendency of youths to seek employment elsewhere, there is still a high rate of youth unemployment in Kenya. Agriculture’s potential cannot be ignored in discussions on how to bridge the youth unemployment gap;
  2. The underproductivity of existing agricultural producers in the face of a growing population places future food security in jeopardy and drives up the cost of living for an already underemployed generation; and
  3. The diversion of new talent away from agriculture perpetuates the issue by lowering the probability of innovation, keeping the agricultural sector underproductive and deterring youths even further.

The noted decrease in the number of young people involved is also concerning when considering the ageing agricultural workforce. Agriculture is important to Kenya’s economy and food security, so the future stability of both is at threat if the inheriting generation is not participating.

The Way Forward

In order to incentivise the youth to participate in agriculture, policy-makers need to streamline the objectives of their strategic plans towards resolving the challenges that deter young people from agriculture:

  1. Increasing education on agricultural skills and value chain opportunities is an excellent start in the quest of warming perceptions of agriculture, fostering new skills, and opening the sector up to entrepreneurial sensibilities;
  2. Enabling modern farming and farming-related activities, enhanced through the digitisation of interactions within agricultural value chains, will create a positive ecosystem to complement education and encourage profitable engagement; and
  3. Implementing policies to improve sectoral monitoring and opportunity identification can help guide towards and support rewarding engagement.  It also encourages more research on how to improve the links in the agricultural sector value chain. This will lead to new discoveries and innovations which will not only create job opportunities for the youth but also improve the sector in its entirety.