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How young Kenyans feel about farming goes against conventional wisdom

A lady in blue overall with white gloves, working on a farm with some others at her background. They are all wearing blue overall.
Young Kenyans typically see farming playing some role in their future, although few respondents want only to farm. Getty Images

Every year, 12 million young people enter the labour market across the African continent.

Economists and policy makers differ about how they should be absorbed into the labour market. Some experts believe that only agriculture can create enough jobs. Others argue for a focus on the agricultural sector and industrialisation especially with increasing urbanisation.

Choosing which policy avenue to follow requires a good understanding of the aspirations of young people.

For our study we spoke to young people from 261 households in rural Kenya. First, we asked them about their preferred livelihood choice using “either-or” questions. This forced them to choose between livelihood options. In this case, only 23% opted for farming.

In a second step, we used a qualitative, narrative-based data collection tool called SenseMaker©. For this, the respondents were asked:

Imagine your life in 10 years, tell a story about how you got to that point from this present day?

The respondents were then asked to interpret the meaning of their own stories using a series of questions. One question was how much working time their future-selves spent on farming.

The findings showed that young people typically see farming playing some role in their future, although few respondents want only to farm. Many chose an 80:20 split where they spent around 80% of their work time on farming, and 20% on non-farm activities. Few respondents opted for the extremes, being full-time farmers or non-farmers. But for those who felt they had high levels of choice, the time spent farming was much less than for those who felt that they had no choice but to farm.

This is important because most rural households are not just farmers. Our research shows that it’s important to go beyond presenting farming as a “take-it-or-leave-it” option – as many researchers and policymakers do. Providing only farming or other careers as options neglects the shades of grey between these two extremes which are likely more important given widespread mixed livelihood strategies. This can undermine the design of appropriate policies.

Mixed livelihoods

Our findings signal that there is scope for mixed livelihood strategies, which combine multiple income streams from on-farm and off-farm sources. The appeal of mixed livelihood strategies is reflected in quotes from some of the rural young Kenyans we interviewed:

A 16-year old male said:

I wish to press on with my education and my dream is to become a doctor. From there I will buy a land and engage in livestock farming.

A young female from Turkana said:

I want to do business and get some money to help myself. I will also keep animals as a way of supporting my living.

The predominant vision of mixed livelihood strategies should not be surprising since most adult farmers pursue diverse livelihood generating portfolios as well. This seems a sensible choice considering the seasonality and riskiness associated with farming, particularly for those with only small pieces of land – the majority in Africa.

Interestingly, most livelihood goals are rural: 49% of youth respondents preferred to remain at their current place of residence, 24% would like to live in the next town and only 17% wished to migrate to the capital. This further calls into question common narratives that see the young people pushing into urban areas.

The results show that the dichotomy between “farm-based” and “off-farm based” development pathways makes little sense. Both are relevant for their envisioned livelihoods.

Presenting farming as a “take it or leave it” option needs to be revisited to inform rural development strategies based on the actual aspirations of rural youth. Efforts to create meaningful livelihoods for young people are welcomed but such efforts should consider that few young people want to be full-time farmers – but few want to abandon farming completely.

Next steps

Our research challenges the narrative that young people don’t want to be on the land at all. Studies supporting the narrative that rural youth are generally not interested in agriculture abound. For example, in Ethiopia, a study found farming was considered a “last resort and, for many, not an option at all”. In Ghana, a study found that young people described farming as a non-modern and physically difficult job for the uneducated.

It’s time that agricultural policies and programmes for young people should reflect that youth manoeuvre around mixed livelihood strategies and may utilise linkages between these different livelihood pillars. For instance, money from farming is being used to finance investments into business and vice versa. This echoes findings from a study using drawing exercises to understand youth aspirations in Zambia, among others.

Rural policies and programmes need to consider that some young people want to be full-time farmers while many others see themselves as part-time farmers, and some want to move out of agriculture altogether. All may require different approaches.

The integration of agricultural and non-agricultural policies will likely be an important step in support of this mix of aspirations.

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