Hivos International

Small-scale farming and youth in an era of rapid rural change

Youth make up approximately one-fifth of the total population in many countries in developing and emerging economy regions. In sheer numbers the youth population in these regions is the largest it has ever been and possibly ever will be. Further, in the rural areas and most significantly in large parts of rural sub-Saharan Africa, the absolute number of youth has increased and will continue to increase.

The prospects of rural youth finding decent work in many countries of the developing and emerging economy worlds, particularly in Africa and South- Central Asia, is limited. The opportunities for work outside agriculture in these sub-regions make the situation for young rural people particularly precarious. While acknowledging that issues of youth and youth employment are rising up the international policy agenda, there remains a low level of policy and investment intervention that focuses explicitly on rural youth and on youthemployment opportunities in the agriculture and agribusiness sectors.

Given the dependence on small-scale farming for food production and for food security domestically, regionally and globally and for its capacity to absorb labour, how small-scale farming is supported, how youth respond to farming opportunities and whether farming, including smallscale farming and the evolving agrifood sector, can meet the aspirations of youth, will be critical for both future food security and employment.

In general the debate on farming and the role of the small-scale farmer is dominated by a focus on aspects of production, and is set within a framework of the prevailing farm structure with limited reflection on alternative trajectories. 

Business as usual, which assumes that through broad-based ‘one-size-fits-all’ productionorientated interventions an adequate livelihood can be secured for the majority of small-scale farmers, including rural youth, is potentially misguided.

Critical choices must be made for differentiated groups of small-scale farmers, including young farmers, to enable rural transformation to take place over the coming decades while minimising risks to food security and livelihoods. Stimulating the growth of farms and rural agribusinesses is essential to improve rural labour market performance for this generation and the next.

Alternative visions are required for the future of small-scale farming as a viable livelihood that is both valued and respected by society and which contributes to global food security. National debates on farming futures that engage the voice of the farmer, the youth and the private sector is a prerequisite to such future visioning. Such visions must take into account the sheer numbers of small-scale farmers, the diversity of small-scale farms and farm households, the aspirations of youth, and rural population dynamics. Further, the development of alternative visions should be set within the framework of wider rural transformation, with an understanding of national demographics as well as longer-term national and rural economic and societal transformation, including changes in the agrifood market structure and the growth of employment opportunities in the non-agriculture sectors. Choices and pathways selected need to acknowledge trade-offs and must address potential negative consequences.

Given the changing dynamics of farming and agrifood markets domestically and internationally, agriculture and agrifood sectors offer new opportunities for job creation. Increasingly national and international agribusinesses are recognising the role of small-scale farmers as valued business partners. Thus, the private sector can play a key role in supporting new business models that enable the expansion of rural and urban jobs in these sectors.

Governments and their development partners have a key role to play in creating a supportive and enabling environment for agriculture and agribusiness including providing a new focus on rural youth through rural and agricultural policy and investment. National employment and labour policies, including those for youth, should be revisited to give explicit focus to agriculture and the associated agrifood market chains and service industries as a major sector upon which to strengthen opportunities for securing and expanding decent employment.

Despite a growing disillusionment on the part of rural youth with livelihood and employment opportunities offered by the agriculture sector, innovations in small-scale farming are emerging, in particular in the peri-urban environment and in new and changing agrifood market chains, which are attracting the youth. There is an urgent need to build on such innovations and to share lessons learned.

This paper focuses on developing and emerging economy regions of the world. It provides an overview of the demographic changes and trends in employment, specifically that of youth, and an overview of small-scale farming and trends in agrifood markets. It reflects on the aspirations of rural youth and identifies some of the drivers and innovations that have engaged youth in agriculture – and which might help to inform and shape the future. Finally, it identifies some emerging policy implications that address small-scale farming and youth in an era of rapid change, including knowledge gaps which if filled could better inform the debate on the future of small-scale agricultureand on who will be the next generation of farmers.


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