• Average farmers lack the required skills to succeed in commercial farming
• Marketing is also a problem, with many roads becoming impassable in rainy weather
The much-talked-about shift in employment from salaried jobs to farming is not happening as quickly as previously predicted. Many young people still choose to migrate to the slums of urban areas, leaving behind lots of underutilised agricultural land.
There’s a whole mix of reasons why the youth prefer leaving the farms to go to the cities in search of scarce jobs. There are problems arising from government policies in agriculture, lack of agricultural markets, unpredictable prices, lack of access to land and generally negative societal attitudes towards farming.
Young people live on family land but due to traditional land tenure practices, the youth do not own the family land. They have no say on what income-generating activities are carried out on family land.
The youth, therefore, look for employment so as to get an income. This explains why a young person might get a job as a casual labourer in a neighbouring farm, leaving the family land lying growing bushy for lack of cultivation. A casual observer might wonder such young people are working for wages instead of growing their own food.
“I need money for the sake of my wife and child,” says Sam Katana, a groundsman in Kilifi county. He is currently employed in a farm neighbouring his extended family’s land. The family land is fallow because the young people in the family are away doing casual jobs. Ironically, Katana is working on land that his employer bought from Katana’s father.
In Kenya, salaried employment, preferably a white-collar job in government, is seen as the ultimate personal achievement. This is drummed into the minds of children early in their schooling.
For many years, agriculture was seen as a backward activity not worthy of the educated. Employment of any kind was seen as a sign of progress, thus the phenomenon of the youth leaving idle land in the villages to seek casual jobs.
“The youth do not view the agricultural sector as a decent form of work,” says Cynthia Peter, a community development officer. In her article for the Star, Cynthia attributed the youth’s avoidance of agriculture to poor farming techniques that make youth view agriculture as “dirty work”.
Consumerist culture is also to blame for the youth not seeing a future in farming. With a salary from employment, workers buy consumer goods: flour, cooking oil, cosmetics, mobile phones, clothes and shoes. Subsistence farming may put food on the table but it doesn’t provide the money needed to buy the other consumer items.
Commercial farming does provide surplus hard cash, but it requires farming skills far beyond those of the average farmers, most of whom are using traditional farming methods. In addition, commercial farming demands financial investments in fertilisers, pesticides, equipment and labour. The youth lack the money to engage in commercial farming and, as they don’t actually own the land they are living on, they lack legal documents with which they could get loans.
HURDLES TO SUCCESS
Commercial farming, known in contemporary Kiswahili as 'Ukulima biashara', is all the rage these days. It has been popularised in mainstream media with fabulous success stories of people who struck gold by venturing into agriculture. Commercial farming is not easy, though, with the biggest complaint being lack of buyers when the produce is finally ready for harvesting. Lack of buyers at the market results in a drop in prices for the farm produce.
There are cases of people who took their bumper harvest to market only to end up selling it at throwaway prices. Ben Wamba, a Kilifi businessman, took a pick-up full of tomatoes to the large wholesale market in Kongowea, Mombasa. The prices he found there were so bad, he took his tomatoes back home. “I thought it would be better to give the tomatoes to my neighbours, instead of dumping them on the roadside as others were doing,” Wamba recalls.
Apart from marketing challenges, there are also problems with physically accessing the markets in the first place. Lots of new roads have been built but many parts of the country still suffer from bad roads. The situation gets worse during the rains, when roads become impassable and farm produce rots in the field. Sadly, the wet season coincides with high production, and a much of the perishable produce cannot reach the market.
Markets run by county governments are not always easy to access. There are cess fees for moving agricultural produce on the roads and market entry fees. The markets get closed abruptly due to public health concerns or political disputes, creating uncertainty among buyers and sellers. Ideally, county markets should be centrally placed within towns to make it easier to access for buyers and sellers.
Poor management of agricultural producer cooperatives largely left farmers at the mercy of middlemen, who then dictate prices. Cooperatives could find large buyers and negotiate favourable prices but an individual farmer lacks the means to consistently meet the demands of big customers. In any case, big buyers would rather deal with large-scale producers. Political interference had a negative impact on the management of cooperatives as they became a stepping stone for the directors to get into politics. Today, only a few of the old cooperatives remain, but there’s a glimmer of hope as new ones emerge to fill the gaps.
Here are some useful lessons for the youth interested in creating employment for themselves from farming:
- Form self-help groups or cooperatives to pool resources and share the risks of farming. One individual cannot go it alone, unless with very deep pockets.
- Find markets for farm produce; this is the hardest part of farming as a business.
- Apply modern farming technologies to ensure high productivity.
- Adopt water harvesting and storage techniques to reduce dependence on rain-fed farming.
- Seek expertise from agricultural extension officers and experienced farmers.
There are things both national and county governments can do to encourage more youths to take up farming:
- Reduce the cost of farm inputs by cutting taxes. For example, there are numerous complaints that the cost of fertilisers is too high compared to our neighbouring countries.
- Continue investing in rural infrastructure such as roads, bridges and markets.
- Streamline relevant laws to make it easier for farmers to reach the markets. Regulations, such as those on selling milk directly to consumers, exist to protect public health but they should be enforced fairly.