The fact that the farming community of South Africa is ageing is quite concerning. The average age of a farmer in South Africa is 62 years. Meanwhile, in other countries such as the United States the average age is 55 years, and in Australia, it is just 53 years.
With the agricultural sector increasingly being viewed an epicentre of growth and development across the African continent, the aforementioned statistics are disappointing. Some agricultural leaders and policymakers have placed the onus on young people, arguing that they show little interest in the sector – preferring office jobs that are perceived as sophisticated.
At face value, this is plausible. However, over the years I have actually met a good number of young South Africans who are motivated and interested in joining the agricultural sector. They all generally ask the same questions though, such as: “Where do we start? Is it possible to access productive land and some mentorship? How do I access potential funding and financing?” Some have already started small operations and are now struggling to enter the formal market.
These questions arise because South African policymakers have not clearly articulated the path to follow for young people who are interested in joining the sector. For agricultural professionals, though, the road is clear – you obtain a tertiary qualification, then join an agricultural institution or government agency. In fact, this seems to be the path that most industry leaders have taken and have emphasized. That said, there is still much obscurity about support measures for those who are interested in joining the production side of the sector, such as being a farmer.
To be a farmer, one needs good productive land. There are young people willing to leave their ‘sophisticated’ careers in other industries and enter agriculture but are encountering funding challenges, which in turn means no access to land. So no matter how ambitious they are, without capital their options are limited.
Accompanying these challenges is an abundance of underutilised land in the rural areas from Eastern Cape, Limpopo to Kwa-Zulu Natal provinces. One solution would be to give these youth title deeds for unutilized land or a tradeable long-term lease. This will allow them to acquire capital and it will be crucial to also link them to organised agriculture for mentorship and access to global export opportunities.
Most unemployed young people are from rural communities in these provinces. By giving them an opportunity to work the land, it will not only uplift them but it will also benefit the entire society by ameliorating the triple challenges of poverty, unemployment and inequality. Fortunately, about 45 percent of sub-Saharan Africa’s population is below the age of 15, so we must make a concerted effort to get these young people into the agricultural pipeline, as the farming population is ageing.
A study by agricultural economists Thomas Jayne and Lulama Ndibongo Traub have championed the potential role that youth could play in the sector. Interestingly, with the current youth unemployment rate of South Africa and the region at large, the study notes that over the next two decades 330 million young Africans will be entering the job market looking for work. In order to prepare for this influx, governments will need to urgently grow and develop their agricultural sectors and maximize the potential to absorb the youth.
In closing, I must emphasise that it is not enough to merely promote the sector and its major potential to absorb the youth and grow the African economies without creating clear paths and opportunities for effective youth participation.
Follow me on Twitter (@WandileSihlobo)