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SA youth doesn’t like farming because it’s not sexy. True or false?

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Wandile Sihlobo is chief economist of the Agricultural Business Chamber of South Africa (Agbiz) and author of ‘FINDING COMMON GROUND: Land, Equity and Agriculture’.

Some agribusinesses and agriculturalists argue that vocational training institutions are not efficiently producing skills needed for agriculture today, and that might be part of the reason why some young people are not finding work in this sector.

It has become fashionable in conferences to say “let’s make agriculture sexy in order to attract the youth”. I get where the sentiment comes from — after all, Africa’s farmers are ageing… the average age is 60. Here in South Africa, that figure is estimated at 62.

But I have two difficulties with supporting this statement.

First, I don’t believe agriculture is necessarily supposed to be made sexy for young people to want to join the sector — it needs to be valuable. In other words, if agriculture can have a greater reward than other sectors of the economy, young people might want to join in.

Second, I haven’t done my homework on this to actually assess if young people are really uninterested in agriculture. But there is anecdotal evidence that there is a large number of young people out there with agricultural degrees and diplomas who struggle to get jobs in this sector, specifically in the case of South Africa. I often receive CVs from graduates from the universities of Limpopo, KwaZulu-Natal, Fort Hare, North West and so on in need of jobs within the agricultural sector.

Some agribusinesses and agriculturalists argue that vocational training institutions are not efficiently producing skills needed for agriculture today, and that might be part of the reason some young people are not finding work in this sector. This calls for more alignment between the agricultural industry and training institutions.

These anecdotes contradict the view that “let’s make agriculture sexy to attract youth” which seems to suggest there is a scarcity of labour or people to farm.

In the Agrekon Journal earlier in 2019, Luke Metelerkamp of Rhodes University published a study which covered three provinces – KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo and the Western Cape, exploring the subject of youth interest in farming. The study concluded that the popular notion that young people are turning their backs on farming seems to hold true, but not because of a lack of interest.

Young people interviewed in the study noted that “jobs in agriculture were either back-breaking or financially unappealing – at the subsistence level”.

Given these observations, I think those of us who are fortunate enough to be part of this sector should showcase opportunities and various possible careers within this sector so that people are not exposed only to the physically challenging jobs. Moreover, this could help young people know where to knock for assistance and what to study that is in demand.

The rise of technology use within agriculture can also play a critical role to ease the fears that agricultural jobs are back-breaking. (Yes, there are some jobs that might be physically demanding, but there are also services jobs that aren’t that way).

Moreover, it is important that the conversation also moves beyond actual primary production and more to the entire value chain. This is where potential job opportunities, and especially higher-skilled jobs, could also be created.

Overall, I think the conversation about youth in agriculture should rather be focused on ways to align them with potential opportunities in the sector rather than repeating the view that people have no interest in farming.

The latter leads to the situation where people spend time trying to make the sector look “attractive” instead of showcasing possible opportunities in it for young people to make decisions on whether this is their desired path to follow. DM

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