Long journeys need coffee breaks. Driving West for four hours across Rwanda from Kigali to the edge of Lake Kivu is a beautiful journey. But it’s also a very sobering one. Seeing the reality of poverty and how people are working hard to get themselves out of it. My driver and I sat down for our coffee.  A young, late teenage-looking girl came to take our order. She went to the kitchen and when she came back I engaged her in a conversation about her peers.

A Rwandan Teenager’s Perspective on Working in Agriculture: “We’d rather do…nothing”

After praising her beautiful country I asked her

“How many of your friends work on the land?”

She looked at me and made a sound as if I’d just said something offensive.

“They don’t work on the land. Not if they can help it”

“Why not? Rwanda is full of land and there aren’t too many opportunities for youth to get jobs”

What she then replied could be accurately paraphrased as “we’d rather do anything or nothing, than work on the land”

This Perspective isn’t only True in Rwanda

Her responses didn’t surprise me.

Instead, they were eerily similar to other stories I hear on almost a daily basis:

  • In Kenya I’d had our team tell me of posters on school walls that said that if you didn’t do well at school you’d end up in agriculture. Teachers threatened children with a future on the land if they failed to perform academically
  • From Malawi to Sierra Leone I’d heard and seen young people pouring out of the agriculture hinterlands into the cities and preferring begging on the streets of the cities, to working on the vast areas of fertile soil.
  • South Africa’s youth face a huge agricultural problem. For many they see the ownership of land as an automatic personal cash machine, without any preparation of motivation, mindsets or skills to lead a small agricultural enterprise.

Why are Agricultural Livelihoods Looked Down on by Youth?

Why? Why when Africa has so much agricultural land do young people not want to work it?

Why, when poverty is a reality to be worked against, do young people turn their back on what is regarded as one of the highest value propositions for ending poverty?  (Studies show that working in agriculture can reduce poverty by between 2 to 11 times more than other strategies.)

1. Because Youth have seen their Parents Struggle: One of the issues we at Emerging Leaders have witnessed is that young people look at their parent’s daily struggle and decide that agriculture hasn’t worked for them.

2. Because Youth don’t want that Struggle for Themselves: Youth don’t want to repeat what they grew up with. That is understandable. And yet it isn’t the whole story.

How a New Mindset can Change an Old Perspective

The young lady in the coffee stop now felt confident to challenge me

“But what about capital? Where can young people find capital to start work?’

I would be a rich man if I’d been given $5 for every time I’d heard this.

I worked through an example with her:

  • How much could she save each week from her meager salary?
  • How much would a laying chicken cost?
  • How soon could she buy one and sell the eggs alongside her current job?

We followed the example through so that she could see she already had the means to grow enough capital to start something.  She then paused and looked at me and pointed to her head.

“Ahh, my head was all wrong. I didn’t see it. Now I see it”

Nothing changed – just her mindset.

Mindset Change:  Making Agriculture Attractive Once Again for Africa’s Youth

It is mindset change that has to be the starting place for transforming the opportunity for youth in agriculture into a reality.  Some examples:

  • Rwanda: We have just received the data from our training in northern Rwanda, a totally agricultural-dependent region, that showed that even subsistence tea pickers had already increased their family income by 20-30% within the past year after training with us.
  • Kenya: Qualitative data from central Kenya showed the same story of dramatic increases in both income and savings after training with our Kenyan team.

Without mindset change the story will stay the same.  It’s that story of their parents that the youth don’t want to repeat.  With mindset change the story becomes different.

Why does it matter if Youth aren’t Interested in Agriculture?

1. Africa has an enormous youth population: Rwanda has 60% of its population under 24 years old.  Uganda next door, 68% of its population is under 24.  Compare that with 27% in Europe.  Africa has a huge youth population.

2. There aren’t enough jobs: The overall population of the African continent is on a very steep rise, so much so that tens of millions of jobs need to be created each year. The reality is that there simply aren’t enough jobs unless young people create them.

3. Agriculture is an employment opportunity: And it’s sitting on many of their doorsteps.  The potential is there, as was evidenced by a targeted conference for Africa held in August (2018) called Youth Employment in Agriculture as a Solid Solution to ending Hunger and Poverty in Africa.

We need to Help Youth Grab their Opportunity in Agriculture

When you are awakened to your potential, when you use what is around you, when you see that you can be the author of a different story, when you develop a few first level skills in finance and planning: then you can write a different story. With these mindsets the challenges for youth – challenges such as getting ownership of a piece of land and getting my agricultural efforts into a larger national or global value chain – can be seized and made into opportunities. The young persons innate creative thinking and problem solving can be liberated so that they can create opportunity and to grow partnerships, even at the most basic village level outwards.

As young people succeed they can be identified as local role models, who have started to lead themselves and engage with agriculture and see a significant shift in their own economic situation. As we bring this kind of leadership development to the rural youth and their local schools we can begin to equip youth for the opportunity, rather than punishment of agriculture.