Kenya’s economy revolves around farming. More than 40% of the population, including 70% of rural adults, work in the agricultural sector, which generates a third of the country’s gross domestic product, according to USAID.
Harvesting crops, preparing and processing foods, and then selling goods locally or abroad is central to day-to-day life.
Yet Loureen Akinyi Awuor, a programmes officer at the Kenya National Farmers' Federation, still thinks agriculture is a “gold mine” of untapped opportunity.
That’s because, in her eyes, it’s stuck in the past, long overdue for a transformation. The average farmer is 60 years old, three times the age of the average Kenyan. Each year, more than 800,000 youth enter the country’s workforce, and, for a variety of cultural, economic, and structural reasons, relatively few seek jobs in agriculture. Women, meanwhile — particularly unmarried women — are effectively barred from even owning land, the most fundamental asset of any farmer.
Awuor believes that an infusion of youth into agriculture would tackle all sorts of problems affecting the country. But first, farming as a profession needs to undergo both a structural and perceptual shift.
“There’s this idea that agriculture is for failures,” she said. “So young people say, ‘Why would I need to do it? It’s the last resort when I’ve tried everything else.’ The moment you come to it as a last resort, you can never see it as a profession.”
How can people come to see farming differently? Make it worthwhile for them. That means investing in their ability to earn competitive livelihoods, take risks, form cooperatives, start agri-businesses, and bring technology to the sector.
Without this transition, the challenges of poverty, hunger, unemployment, and environmental degradation will only get worse.
Already, climate change is disrupting the ability of farmers to bring crops to harvest as rains become inconsistent, temperatures rise, and droughts prolong. Meanwhile, global demand for food will grow by 70% by the middle of the century, requiring countries to grow more crops on the same amount of land.
Awuor believes that with the right support and investments, young people can transform Kenyan agriculture to deal with ongoing hunger and poverty and the ravages wrought by climate change. She's currently a trainee with the Ban Ki-moon Centre's Young Women Leadership on Climate Adaptation Program, where she;s learning how to best navigate an uncertain future, build community reslience, and expand her networks.
As part of Global Citizen’s partnership with the Ban Ki-moon Centre, Awuor recently spoke to Global Citizen about the state of youth employment in Kenya, how agriculture can be improved, and what structural investments need to be made to unlock the country’s potential.
What are the primary drivers of youth unemployment in Kenya?
I think that unemployment is one of the biggest challenges we have right now. One reason is because we really do have a serious youth bulge, we have a very young population.
The main driver of unemployment for us is the mismatch of our skills. We go to school but we are not provided with the right life skills. The idea is that, normally, we go to school, and everyone will get an office job. Then when you get outside, you realize the corner offices are still occupied and you have to restrategize.
The other thing is a lack of access to capital. Most of the time in Kenya, for you to have proper access to finance, you have to have something to show for it and the most basic thing to show is land. Most of the male youth in Kenya depend on the succession system for land, where you basically wait for your parents to die before they can give you land.
Poverty is both a cause and end product of unemployment. It’s a driver because in our society, it’s who you know who makes you employed. It’s your network. If you grow up in poverty, it means your parent’s network is often very small. Then it means when you’re growing up, chances are you’re never exposed enough to people in power, you don’t have someone to elevate you to the next level, and it becomes a vicious cycle. Your parents aren’t known, you’re not known, and your children become not known.
The financial crisis is another factor. The world had a monumental depression, and this affected the economy’s ability to expand to other things.
And then there’s the digital divide. We, as a society, are really trying to move towards technology but there are people who cannot afford this technology so they cannot move on with the rest of the people without support.
What structural investments need to be made to create better employment conditions for young people?
One of the key ones for me is education because it opens your mind to possibilities. If someone wants to go somewhere, they need good schools.
Health infrastructure is important as well. I think COVID-19 was really a lesson for us and I hope our government takes it up. If developed countries were as overwhelmed as they were, imagine our country with almost nonexistent health services, especially in rural areas, where the roads are just terrible, where you cannot access roads to get produce, let alone reach a health facility.
There’s also opportunity for green energy, wind and solar. A vast part of the country is semi-arid where you have enough sun and enough wind. This is an area where we can really invest in action against climate change, and then we would start getting opportunities for employment.
The other part of energy is electricity, which for me is very important, especially in rural areas. Not every home has it and electricity is not just for lighting and seeing things, it’s also a driver for better technology.
We also need to invest in post-harvest handling for agriculture. There’s so much food waste after production because of how we handle our produce, often without storage facilities. If you go to most of our markets for fresh produce, when you go there, half of it has gone bad, because we don’t have the right facilities. And if we can’t have fresh produce, we should dry it.
We have to have an environment that provides opportunity for young people and policies need to change. As young people, we really need to influence leadership in our country. We have the power. We have the most votes, but we are sometimes the ones who do not vote, or we vote depending on ethnicity, and what happens after that is we get a raw deal.
How can women be better supported to flourish in their careers?
It's a different dynamic altogether, one because women do not own land, which for us, land is the valuation of any human being in Kenya. Women do not own land because they’re supposed to get married, so the parents cannot give them a piece of their land, and then their husband owns the land. Women cannot have a title for land.
For a long time, the Kenyan society has been patriarchal. The men always make the decisions and have all the power. We have to try to have equality if we are going to go anywhere. By equality, for me, it starts with our social constructs. I always say, in Kenya, women are brought up for marriage and men are brought up to be independent, and we have to have that change.
We have to have equality, equity, and gender justice, but other than that, one thing that’s big for me is networks, which are always limited for women. Because in a patriarchy, you can aim high but not so high. You’re told, “you behave like a man” if you want more.
By networks I mean, being exposed to people who have experience. We really need to enhance the leadership capacity of women in society. This is really basic. Mentorship can provide the links, take women where they need to be, show them the ropes.
We still have a long way to go, and as much as we work toward gender equality, we have to have men on board. The whole society is stuck on the patriarchy system. For meaningful progress to happen, we have to bring men and religion on board.
Why aren’t young people entering the agricultural sector in larger numbers?
The first thing is, agriculture is not attractive in our system. In Kenya, agriculture and poverty go hand-in-hand. Because most of our producers are small scale farmers, it means agriculture is just a way of life, so it’s never attractive in the first point. You’re poor and you’re doing some small farming production. It’s also seen as a donkey kind of work. Our way of agriculture is smallholder so it means you wake up in the morning, you go from morning to evening weeding and tending to plants and the productivity of it because it is a small plot of land that’s not that worth it.
How we sell agriculture as a country is a sad state of affairs. When we go to school, our corporeal punishment is agriculture. When you make a mistake, you’re not suspended, you’re taken to dig or mow or to thresh, to remove maize from the corn. We have sold agriculture as a punishment so when you tell youth that agriculture can also pay, it doesn’t make sense.
Our parents also have resigned to that kind of fate. Most of the time if you’re not doing well in school, you’ll be told just go on being not serious with work and you’re going to end up being at home with me and farming.
There’s this idea that agriculture is for failures. So why would I need to do it? It’s the last resort when I’ve tried everything else. The moment you come to it as a last resort, you can never see it as a profession.
The other thing is the land issue, like I said, there's limited land access for the youth. If you're a man you have to wait for your father to divide it for you, if you're a woman, you just own you, that’s it.
It's also not very productive. For our agriculture, we rely on rain-fed production, and with climate change, we have very long drought seasons. I come from an area where we have two planting seasons, and now the rains have become so unreliable that you can’t always plant twice a year. When the rain is too much, it disrupts some crops. The reliability, it becomes so erratic, you don’t know how production will go, and the yields get very low.
How can the unemployment gap be bridged with agriculture?
I keep saying that agriculture is the next gold mine if we do it right, which starts with changing attitudes. The average age of farmers is 60 years old. We have to change that.
If we don’t change in time, we won’t be producing enough food.
So how do we bridge the gap? We have to change attitudes. We have to change our dependence on rain-fed agriculture, we have to go into different types of productions like agroecology, things that improve the soil without fertilizer, and we have to go into climate-smart agriculture.
Most of our farms we have maize growing and below we put beans, that’s how we do production, and it’s become a big challenge. We have to go back to the local foods we used to have, the sorghum and millet, that are also drought resistant.
Agriculture and technology go hand in hand and that’s key for the youth who are interested in technology.
How are young people using technology to transform agriculture in Kenya?
I will say that the first thing is we have quite a number of digital platforms offering services that are run by young people
There’s the onion doctor, for example. It’s a web service that provides information about onions, crop management, how you start off and the different types of processes you can have. It also provides pest and disease surveillance, you take a photo of the disease of whatever your plant had and you send it, and they analyze the photos, and advise what you need to do with your onion to make it better.
We also have feedback and call centers, where farmers call in and ask questions and they’re provided with help.Farmers can also get info on commodities prices, so they know the best prices, and can get access to safe inputs for things like pest control because there are a lot of counterfeits.
We still have a digital divide and the producers might not be technically savvy, so there's still a mismatch that young people can help with.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.