Is Agriculture the Solution to Youth Unemployment?

An attempt to discuss the youth unemployment in Kenya immediately stumbles upon roadblocks and diversions and one ends up going in circles. While the official operationalization of the word “youth” is anyone within the age of 18-34, most of the data on the rate of youth unemployment covers the ages from 16 or 19 to 24 years. There are different data sets from diverse bodies on the question of the rate of youth unemployment in Kenya. I would however not accept any that shows youth unemployment being less than 80%.

Many stakeholders (government, non-government and international organizations) have been championing agriculture as the solution to the high unemployment. But can agriculture really be the silver bullet? It has worked before, so maybe it can work today

Most developed countries with low unemployment levels today had to go through the route of agriculture. They actually participated in the agrarian revolution in the 17th century. Even though the farming population has declined to below 5% in such countries, they built and still sustain a substantial agricultural base from which they build their agro-industries affording them food self-sufficiency and export. As for us, until the founding of the modern Kenya in 1878, we were a basic society largely operating in the state of nature; largely hunting and gathering. Mzungu brought the cash crops; tea and coffee and also most animal breeds etc. By the time we took independence we had established a good agricultural base hence the “agriculture is the backbone of our economy” mantra. Agriculture generated the bulk of our GDP. Quite rightly so; our manufacturing and service industries were non-existent. With our low literacy levels, agriculture was the only thing we could do. Yet like now, even back then we still couldn’t feed ourselves. Fast forward, the circumstances of post-independence do not hold anymore. We have gained a little bit more education and training, other industries have opened up, bringing forth other sources of GDP yet the dogged emphasis on agriculture has prevent us from harnessing the potential in other industries and sectors.

If you consider that the population of Kenya has grown from the 8.1M at independence to approximately 48M in 2018, you will realize that the population pressure on land has increased immensely. The pressure is even more pronounced in areas that are considered arable such that you hardly get a family living and farming in more than a half-acre of land. How much agriculture can be done from that? I have seen stories of how people are optimizing those half acres. My feeling is that you really can’t build an economy on such. Highly unsustainable. How much capital can such small pieces absorb? How much production can it sustain? How much revenue? Not much really.

The climate has changed a lot since too. Erratic weather pattern; increasing heat and decreasing rainfalls are the hallmark of our environment now. Rivers will flood in 2 weeks and run completely dry in the next 2 weeks. Some of us grew up in places where it used to rain but now we can hardly harvest green maize anymore. It’s a little hard to sustain agribusiness on prayer and fasting for rains. And the youth aren’t too religious to start with.

Agriculture is practiced on land, which in most instances belongs to Mzee. Very little land is in the hands of anyone below 34 years of age. Isn’t it then folly to sit and plan on a third party asset as the main driver of enterprise? You hardly can make a lease contract with Mzee. Even when you do and he throws you out and allocates the land to your little brother? Will you invoke the law against him?

To compound matters, the land might not be properly regularized and even if it were, very few Wazees will freely guarantee loan on their title. Even in cases where Mzee will guarantee you, the ecosystem is such that we hardly have sound loan products that can help finance agriculture. While it’s been found that agriculture needs intensive investment and will hardly break even before 5 years, you will find that most of the loans available are very short term, bearing very high interest rates, without grace periods and almost always to be paid on monthly instalments. Come on, this arrangement won’t work. Not at all.

The ecosystem also lacks the complementary structures to support the youth in agriculture. Most of the youth of today grew up after the death of the 4K clubs. Even the famed ‘agricultural shows’ of yester years have now evolved from agricultural fairs to entertainment for kids. We at best studied theoretical agricultural in primary and secondary schools. Hardly any colleges will train on agriculture and even if they do, we have not been well prepared and incentivized to do it. It doesn’t help that Kenyans love short cuts, most poultry farming youths I know will have less than 20 Kienyeji chicken, “they don’t need much work” I hear. Ni kufungulia na kufungia tu. Are we then going to sit and pretend that agriculture will solve our problems when the mind isn’t well adjusted to it?

Needless to say, a large proportion of our agriculture is still basic and pre-agrarian revolution; we fully depend on rains that are seasonal in nature, our production is still basic; ox driven plough and jembes, basic seeds and almost no fertilizers and chemicals. One interesting case is that of our cattle farmers. I have previously seen in our courts goats brought by the leaders of the Njemps community accusing whoever brought the Mathenge trees for killing their goats. The tree is said to damage the teeth. Granted, it might be true the tree does affect the teeth. But the effects only appear after 5 years. Why are you keeping a goat for more than 2 let alone 5 years? We still count our wealth in static animal stock? Someone needs to sit people down and tell them that a goat can be multiplied to 3 in 5 years. A cow can be multiplied by 2 in 5 years.

Suffice it to say, the ship already left the port. Previously we traded our cash crops in the international markets, but due to structural inefficiencies, we dropped down the food chain. We almost ruled the world in Coffee production, but the tonnage plummeted over the years while other serious countries increased theirs. We have lost competitiveness in tea and nuts too. It’s probably time we considered our approach to agriculture and decide whether it still should be the backbone of our economy.

While it is desirable to promote agriculture, it is unfair to present it as if it would be the solution that the youth have been waiting for. We should actively seek out alternatives. If you translated the man-hours that go into maize farming into manufacturing chips and integrated circuits you would be amazed. If you engaged the labour and time that goes into farming into bicycle manufacturing you would see amazing results.

Like said before, most countries passed through the ox plough and hoe. Then they went to manufacturing tractors and machines involved in agro processing. Some went to production into the technology (software and hardware) that is used in making such machineries, all while we are here telling our youth to pick a jembe and head to the farm. Maybe we might increase the advocacy for that to happen, but on current circumstances, no matter the noise, little will change.

>>>This piece is meant to provoke thought and possibly elicit some debate on the subject, it would be interesting to read your contributions<<<

3 thoughts on “Is Agriculture the Solution to Youth Unemployment?

  1. Very good and insightful piece. Most of us live in a world of denial even though the truth is paraded right in front of us.


  2. Interesting read. At least it emphasizes on an Agrarian-like revolution , with less labour intensive output, for sustainable output.
    On ‘Mathenge’, if you were to eat that goat, perhaps you’d be the one without teeth in 5 yrs.
    Land ownership also a core issue.


  3. Hey Moses, quite an interesting piece. In my own assessment I think this piece is saying that conventional, agriculture without innovation beyond the land and Jembe would not take us anywhere despite having a potential to contribute to economy and create employment. What it means we should explore the potential in agriculture beyond conventional practice


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