It has become fashionable in conferences to say “let’s make agriculture sexy in order to attract the youth”. I get where the sentiment comes from, after all, Africa’s farmers are ageing with an average age of 60. Here in South Africa, that number is estimated at 62.
But I have two difficulties with supporting this statement.
First, I don’t believe that agriculture is necessarily supposed to be made sexy for young people to want to join the sector — it needs to be valuable. In other words, if agriculture can have a greater reward as other sectors of the economy, young people might want to join in.
Second, I haven’t done my homework on this to actually assess if young people are really uninterested in agriculture. But there is anecdotal evidence that there are a large number of young people out there with agriculture degrees and diplomas who struggle to get jobs in this sector, specifically in the case of South Africa. I often receive emails with CVs from graduates from the universities of Limpopo, KwaZulu-Natal, Fort Hare, North West, etc. in need of jobs within the agricultural sector.
Some agribusinesses and agriculturalists argue that vocational training institutions are not efficiently producing skills needed for agriculture today, and that might be part of the reason some young people are not finding work in this sector. This then calls for more alignment between the agricultural industry and training institutions.
These anecdotes contradict the view that “let’s make agriculture sexy to attract youth” which seems to suggest that there is the scarcity of labour or people to farm.
In the Agrekon Journal earlier this year, Luke Metelerkamp of Rhodes University, published a study which covered three provinces – KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo and the Western Cape exploring this subject of “youth interest in farming”. The study concluded that the dominant notion that young people are turning their backs on farming seems to hold true, but not because of a lack of interest.
Young people interviewed in the study noted that “jobs in agriculture were either back-breaking and financially unappealing – at the subsistence level”.
Given these observations, I think those of us who are fortunate enough to be part of this sector should showcase opportunities and various possible careers within this sector so that people are not only exposed to the physically challenging jobs. Moreover, this could help young people to know where to knock for assistance and what to study that’s on-demand in the present moment.
The rise of technology use within agriculture can also play a critical role to ease the fears that agricultural jobs are back-breaking. (Yes, there are some jobs that might be physically demanding, but there are also services jobs that aren’t that way).
Moreover, it is important that the conversation also moves beyond actual primary production and more to the entire value chain. This is where potential job opportunities could also be created.
Overall, I think the conversation about youth in agriculture should rather be focused on ways to align them with potential opportunities in the sector rather than repeating the view that people have no interest in farming. The latter leads to the situation where people spend time trying to make the sector look “attractive” instead of showcasing possible opportunities in it for young people to make their decisions if this is their desired path to follow or not.
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