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Young blood a prerequisite for future of farms

Food security is, and always has been, a serious topic and, as our population grows, it will perhaps become a crucial issue. The global population is expected to expand by 16% in the next 20 years to 8.5-billion people. This surging population growth, among other factors, will propel the market demand for agricultural products, which, in some countries, might lead to food insecurity.

Food security in the future, then, should be deemed important to the youth. As such, one would expect countries with a high youth population, such as South Africa – where 58% of the people are under 30 – to be much more involved with agriculture. Yet it seems a constant challenge to incorporate more young people into the agricultural sector.

For many years, South Africa has been fortunate enough to be nationally food secure. But because of large numbers of ageing farmers coupled with others opting out of the business, this food security has been shaken. The average age of a South African farmer is about 62, according to Agri SA estimates.

In the 1980s, South Africa had about 128 000 commercial farmers and this number has decreased considerably to an estimated 30 000 in 2014, with reasons ranging from market conditions and policy uncertainty to personal reasons.

These trends call for the youth’s involvement in the country’s food production chain.

As a result, decision-makers in government and private institutions focus on this crucial matter by highlighting opportunities in the sector, such as farming possibilities for agricultural professionals, service providers and so forth. Along with this, many challenges faced by the agricultural sector, from policy uncertainty to profitability issues, have also been highlighted. Regrettably, young agricultural practitioners are frequently underrepresented in such discussions. One often sees a round-table discussion of seasoned professionals discussing strategies to change the image of the sector and attract young talent without younger representation.

Nevertheless, the recent Youth in Agriculture Summit for Southern Africa, in Durban on August 3 to 6, presented by the Centre for Co-ordination of Agricultural Research and Development for Southern Africa (Ccardesa) provided a platform for young people to voice their opinions. It gave many an opportunity to define how they imagine playing a part in agriculture in the future. And it presented an opportunity for young people to learn more about the technicalities and challenges of different agricultural enterprises.

At this summit, I was encouraged to hear that some of the young students had made a conceptual shift from regarding agriculture as a means of subsistence towards understanding and viewing agriculture as a business. Similarly, this mistaken view is still shared widely among the youth and, therefore, agriculture does not appeal to them because they aspire to live a “sophisticated” life.

This evidently indicates that the agricultural industry has not yet managed to communicate all the complexities involved in, and opportunities available in, the sector. The industry should build on this platform provided by Ccardesa and create more dialogue avenues to engage with the youth. Understanding their views could lead to more effective strategies that will attract them to the sector.

In the state of Maine in the United States, a programme to involve more youths in the agricultural sector was brought into effect with great success. Today, because of this programme, some 40% of farmers in Maine are younger than 35. It seems sustained engagement with the youth, through technological developments, had been key to attracting more young people into the sector. If South Africa implemented such a programme, targeting more involvement from youth through technological advancement, perhaps such a success could be achieved here too.

Youth involvement in the agricultural sector is crucial if we are to retain our food security status for the future. I remain hopeful that if decision-makers start to involve the youth in their conversations about the future of the sector, as Ccardesa seeks to do, perhaps, in a few years we might start reaping the benefits and remain a food-secure nation.

Wandile Sihlobo is an economist at Grain SA. These are his own views.

Find the original article on M&G Africa.