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Can mentoring boost youth participation in Kenyan agriculture?

<p>Although agriculture accounts for 65 per cent of Kenya's foreign export earnings, young people largely ignore the sector. A new mentoring scheme is hoping to change that.</p>

Although agriculture accounts for 65 per cent of Kenya’s foreign export earnings, young people largely ignore the sector. A new mentoring scheme is hoping to change that.(CCAFS/S.Kilungu)

Agriculture is the backbone of Kenya’s economy. Worth billions of dollars, it is responsible for the livelihoods of over 80 per cent of the rural population and accounts for 65 percent of the country’s total export revenue, according to the country’s Institute of Economic Affairs.

However, it is a sector that has been largely been ignored by the youth, who, despite being stuck for the large part in informal jobs, yearn for the security and prestige of white-collar jobs. Although there is no exact figure for the number of young Kenyans engaged in agriculture, a study by the Kenya Agricultural Productivity Programme indicated that the average age of a Kenyan farmer is 53 years old.

By comparison, data shows that sub-Saharan Africa has the youngest population in the world, with over 70 per cent of Africans below 30 years, coupled with one of the highest rates of long-term youth unemployment in the world (48.1 per cent in 2014).

As a result, Kenya’s government agencies, farmers associations and non-governmental organisations are trying to devise ways to encourage young Kenyans to embrace farming.

The Young Professionals for Agricultural Development (YPARD), an international movement focused on boosting youth involvement in agriculture, has identified mentoring as a key approach.

As a result, working in collaboration with African Women in Agricultural Research for Development (AWARD), YPARD Kenya recently carried out a one-year mentoring scheme for young farmers.

Beginning in June 2015, the Youth in Agriculture Pilot Mentoring Programme matched 15 young farmers with industry mentors.

Michelle Kovacevic, YPARD mentoring coordinator, says it is crucial that governments get young people involved in farming – despite the difficulties. “It’s incredibly challenging to access credit, have land, access markets and afford education. Young women engaging in agriculture on the other hand suffer cultural stigma. But if supported the challenges don’t seem so big,” she tells Equal Times.

She says the programme’s key objective was to provide young agriculturalists with an opportunity to interact with senior professionals in business, research, extension services and information communication technology.

“The mentoring programme was initiated because we know there are millions of budding young people seeking support and opportunities to proactively participate in innovative and sustainable agricultural development,” she says.

She notes that connecting young people in agriculture with professionals, who can mentor them positively, helps enable young farmers, researchers, entrepreneurs, scientists and others to develop ideas, restore knowledge and catalyse cross-disciplinary partnerships.

Emmanuel Ngore, Kenya’s national representative for YPARD, says that youth participation in agriculture is still a long way from what it should be. “Kenyan government policy, for instance, stipulates that one-third of every government tender should go to the youth. But that rarely happens as older citizens grab the opportunities,” he explains.

Kovacevic observes that rapid urbanisation and changing weather patterns are both part of the new global norm. To meet this challenge, cross-regional and cross-generational innovation is required. “Now more than ever, the world needs young people who proactively engage in and contribute to sustainable agriculture development,” she stresses.

Vital role to be played by young people

During the mentorship programme, mentees were taught a variety of practical and soft-skills ranging from how to register a business and how to access markets, to conflict resolution and networking.

Meshack Khisa, assistant secretary general of the Kenya Plantation and Agricultural Workers Union (KPAWU), says there is a growing recognition of the vital role to be played by young people in the sector. This, he adds, is reflected in the increase of government and private companies initiatives that support youth participation in agriculture.

However, he notes, the majority of youth agricultural ventures falls under the unregulated informal sector which constitutes 60 percent of Kenya’s economy.

As a result, Khisa says, many initiatives face challenges like poor compliance of regulatory measures and a lack of standardisation of services and products.

“We are exploring assisting young farmers adhere to set rules through encouraging them to collectively address challenges related to compliance to labour regulations and meeting market needs,” he explains.

Esther Ndichu, a YPARD programme mentee in her early 20s based in Kikuyu Town on the outskirts of Nairobi, says she has benefited immensely from the programme. She grows greenhouse tomatoes and lettuce and employs one full-time member of staff and hires up to four people on a casual basis.

“Mentorship is an ideal way of imparting skills to farmers. Unlike field days where experts have limited time with farmers, [mentoring] covers all stages of crop production,” says Esther.

When asked why so few young people work in agriculture she explains that costly inputs and the fluctuating price of farm produce discourages many of her peers, adding that exploitation by middlemen due to the lack of collective bargaining power among young farmers is another hurdle they face.

But she has no regrets about her chosen career path. “Farming is lucrative. Armed with the in-depth knowledge and experience I have gained from my mentor, I wish to nurture future farmers,” she says, revealing her plans to open a second greenhouse and mentor others.

Achievements by other mentees included the establishment of four agribusinesses as well as the acquisition of US$15,000 in seed funding for the development of an app. Kovacevic says YPARD plans to mentor 100 more youths in Kenya next year before rolling out the programme to Nigeria.

Find the original article on the Equaltimes website.