• Lack of land, capital and role models are also blamed for its evasion despite potential
Now in his thirties, Liverson Mwarabu earns a living doing minor jobs for small businesses in Voi town, Taita Taveta county. The jobs include cleaning floors, fetching water in plastic jerricans and garbage disposal.
Mwarabu is not a full-time employee in any of those businesses. He is paid per task, typically earning between Sh50 and Sh100 for each assignment. He feels his clients are exploiting him but, under the circumstances, he has no choice but to hold on.
"Some clients give me Sh50 for work that is worth Sh200," Mwarabu says. That income is not enough to rent a single room by himself. He thus shares a small room with other men doing similar jobs.
Mwarabu grew up in a poor household and did not get far in schooling. He has no vocational skills with which to find a better-paying occupation. Asked if he is willing to return to his rural village to try farming, Mwarabu says he wants to cultivate tomatoes for sale but there is one problem.
"I love farming but our family land is located on the slopes of a hill. For me to irrigate the land, I need a petrol pump to get water from the bottom of the valley. I don't have the money to buy all the equipment needed to get started," Mwarabu says. In his estimation, he needs almost Sh50,000 to irrigate his family's farm. With his current low income, it will take a miracle to get that kind of money.
"I've been placing bets on football matches. Someday, I will win enough money to change my life for the better," he says.
NOTHING TO INVEST
Mwarabu's situation exemplifies the experience of young people looking for work in urban areas. The kind of farming he aspires to do requires money that he does not have. At least Mwarabu has access to family land. Many of his agemates have no land, and this is a major barrier to getting more youth involved in farming.
The 2019 national census showed that 78 per cent of Kenyans are below the age of 35, but this group is the worst affected by unemployment. 64 per cent of the unemployed are found in that age group. Despite the severe shortage of formal sector jobs, most young people do not consider farming to be a lifelong career. Instead, farming is generally viewed as an occupation for the elderly.
Agriculture is seen as the next step in generating self-employment in a world where formal jobs are in short supply. Getting more young people into agriculture would achieve several goals: increase the country's food production, stabilise food prices and reduce rural-urban migration. However, the youth have good reason to be sceptical about farming.
Agriculture involves lots of hard, manual labour. Farmers have no guarantee their produce will fetch good prices at the market. Climate change is wreaking havoc on farming as crops wilt in the fields and livestock die of drought. There are modern farming practices that can assure farmers of better yields, but they require investing in irrigation systems, fertilisers, commercial seeds and pesticides, all of which are expensive. Most youth do not have the money for commercial farming.
The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) acknowledges the dire situation facing rural youth. They often lack access to credit and many other productive resources necessary for agriculture. Population pressure on the available arable land makes it difficult for the youth to get into farming. In many parts of Kenya, families have no more land to subdivide to the next generation.
"While most of the world's food is produced by (ageing) smallholder farmers in developing countries, older farmers are less likely to adopt the new technologies needed to sustainably increase agricultural productivity," the FAO states.
Dr Lucy Njeru of Embu University says the lack of respect towards farmers and lack of role models appear as the likely reasons for youth not engaging in agriculture. The media promotes a Western, urban lifestyle and thus negatively shapes rural youth's aspirations related to agriculture.
"In most parts of the world, agriculture is seen as a less worthwhile subject, last resort for under-achievers and a dirty job for urban students," Njeru observed in her paper published in the Greener Journal of Agricultural Sciences.
Njeru concurs with the FAO's concern over ageing farmers. The average age of a typical Kenyan farmer is about 60 years and, at this age bracket, farmers are hesitant to adopt innovations. This makes it difficult to transform agriculture from a casual pursuit into an income-generating activity.
Over the years, agriculture has lost its prominence in the education system. Critics say that modern education is "not relevant to rural lives". The key to getting more young people to see farming as self-employment is to get modern agricultural practices into the school curriculum.
RELEVANT SCHOOL CURRICULUM
"Teachers need to instil a positive perception towards agriculture by explaining to their students the many aspects of agriculture, its importance to everyday life, and its career opportunities," Njeru and her colleagues recommend. Education in rural areas needs to be made more relevant by modernising the existing agricultural curriculum.
Meanwhile, Dr Michael Ngala, an expert in entrepreneurship and economics at the Cooperative University, recommends deliberate attempts to incorporate technology into farming as a way of motivating the youth to embrace agriculture. This will subsequently increase food production.
"Young people easily embrace new ideas, experiment with new practices and are often devoid of technophobia," Ngala noted in the International Journal of Economics, Commerce and Management.
"They are a potential vital force for innovation in cooperative societies and can contribute immensely to the well-being of farmers, families and to the local communities."
The crisis of unemployment has remained a thorny issue for decades. The number of job seekers far exceeds the number of available jobs. Getting more youth into agriculture would create employment in farms and related industries such as transport, food processing, markets and extension services.
For that to happen, the barriers preventing the youth from fully participating in agriculture should be resolved.