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Next generation smallholders: what’s required to empower youth and the farmers of the future

Last month we held a 40 person online workshop on the above topic, and here some notes from that, without attribution. Attendees were from brands, suppliers, key NGOs and farmers representatives. Our focus was on unpicking some of the barriers to making agriculture attractive for young people in rural communities in emerging nations. We didn’t find all the answers, but I hope the notes are somehow useful to read for some readers.

In our first session, we asked: “How do we make agriculture aspirational for young people? What are the drivers beyond just money?”

Here’s some of the thoughts the attendees came up with:

  • From a brand/buyer perspective the problem of a lack of cross-commodity cooperation remains. But given the many tough commitments on deforestation there is no option but to engage with the farmers to achieve them.
  • The much-referred-to Cocoa and Forests Initiative in west Africa is an example of how a programme can be well structured to adapt to new practices, and to focus on all aspects of what makes a smallholder farm viable.
  • Cooperatives remain very important to help farmers roll out innovation and to ensure better uptake of change. Distribution of tools – which can be as simple as sending out recorded training sessions – can be facilitated well by cooperatives.
  • Cooperatives also enable buyer/brands to engage more closely with farmers at scale. There is a clear trend towards more direct relationships to enable the transparency that buyer companies want, and increasingly consumers expect.
  • Once farmer cooperatives and groups reach a certain size, new employment opportunities develop to run the organisation or to help farmers rationalise practices. Such more professional type roles are attractive to more educated young people.
  • Bigger agricultural operations can help their smaller neighbours in a number of ways. Again, this might be as simple as ensuring that food for plantation workers and their families is sourced locally whenever possible.
  • Even when relatively sophisticated youth engagement programmes are in place – such as education, scholarships – the big challenge remains that rural livelihoods and lifestyles are not perceived to be good and young people drop out and drift away to the cities (and don’t return).
  • In many respects, young people don’t start from a point of neutrality. The default for many is to leave rural life if possible. The goal for many farmers has been, for a number of generations, for their children to have opportunities beyond agriculture. Thus, it is frequently not just young people who have to be persuaded and attracted to be the next generation of farmers, but their parents/grandparents have to see the benefits for their children/grandchildren too.
  • Village champions, promoting how to introduce new practices, smarter use of inputs, new seed types and other technology, can work well. Demonstration plots in villages or schools work well too.
  • Income diversification, particularly to provide cash flow throughout the year – on farms traditionally producing very seasonal commodity crops – is key.
  • Smart use of technology – training, engaging with others in a cooperative, devising and delivering farm development plans – is attractive to a tech-savvy younger generation.

In our second session, we asked: “How can the barriers to youth empowerment be overcome? Land titles, legal rights: what have we learned about streamlining bureaucracy?”

  • Land title is, and will continue to be, a significant challenge. In many countries formal land title does not exist, and there is a mixture of legal and traditional structures governing land use.
  • The issue of land title is not just one about security of tenure, it also affects much else. Loans – hard to access for farmers at the best of times – require collateral, and in the absence of formal land tenure, this is a significant obstacle for farmers.
  • The land issue also means that, in the case of palm oil, smallholders are not able to become RSPO certified, and to do so requires them to demonstrate that they own the land.
  • In particular in Africa, where the population is expected to double by 2050, the issues of land holding will become even more severe as already-small farms get further sub-divided between different siblings.
  • Smallholder farmers legal rights are often ignored by the government and other who may simply disregard their interests. For example, there have been instances when land has been demarked as protected land or as plantation without any reference made to the farmers who already occupy those lands.
  • Bureaucracy in many of these countries can often be tortuous. There are often competing laws and regulations, which can contradict each other. Often there is little effort or resources put into properly implementing regulations.
  • Efforts are routinely made to streamline bureaucracy, but these efforts are often stalled by the vested interests in whose interests the current structures operate.
  • Traditional structures of power tend to exclude the young and women. Village councils, chiefs and other key people tend to be older men. The governance of farmer cooperatives tends often to sit with this group of the local society.
  • For young people it is often preferable to ‘escape’ to a larger town or city. Often, they have seen how hard their parents have had to work for little return, and do not want this for themselves.
  • As was noted in the first session, in many cases parents do not want their children to follow them into farming. They spend money on education so that their children have other alternatives and can choose different career paths.

More on all this at