By Dyson Mthawanji*
It is rare to find youths that are fully interested in mainstream agriculture. This is surprising considering that everyone knows that agriculture is the backbone of Malawi’s economy.
Evidence exists which shows growing disillusionment with and disinterest in agricultural-based livelihoods among the youth in Africa including Malawi. This disillusionment raises concerns for the future of agriculture for Malawi as it can lead to higher rural urban migration, unemployment and lowered agricultural productivity.
To get youths interested and participating in agriculture, Malawi has to transform the sector and employ innovative strategies. This is what came out of a discussion on Food and Agricultural Policies in Southern Africa during the Beating Famine Southern Africa Conference in Lilongwe.
The conference which was held under the theme, Sustainable food security through land regeneration in a changing climate saw Mariam Kadzamira of International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPR) – Malawi Strategy Support Programme take to the podium and ask the big question, “How does Malawi transform agriculture so that youths participate?”
It is the wish of every youth in Malawi to live a successful life. Yes, it is the desire of these youths to drive good cars and live decent life. However, little do they know that agriculture holds key for such potential successful life.
The common question has been on how stakeholders can support the youths to have interest for agriculture.
“Innovative financing is one way of engaging youths. But youths are a risky group. So it has to be done hand-in-hand with capacity building to ensure for instance that loans are paid back and that there is accountability across the board,” said Kadzamira.
Delegates agreed that previous youth agricultural financing programmes had failed because they did not contain long-term sustainability plans when conceptualised.
Youth in Malawi exist on the periphery of policy-making processes where agriculture is concerned. Yet the majority are born into farming households, with farming as the most probable livelihood option.
According to research carried out by IFPR – Malawi Strategy Support Programme, youth have strong ties with government departments at regional and district levels. However, engagement between youth advocates and government stakeholders at national level is weak and even weaker in youth organisations.
Kadzamira further explained that “the more remote an area is, the less likely that youths will engage with stakeholders on policy matters. More so if they are female.
Some of the challenges that youth face include a lack of awareness of the policy processes. They are unable to articulate their ideas, have no financial resources to participate, plus lack appropriate support mechanisms and government initiatives to encourage them. While there is a pervasive negative attitude among youths towards agriculture, the media have not helped the situation. Farmers are often portrayed as a poor long-suffering group.
Indeed, going through various media outlets, the picture one gets is that agriculture is for poor masses, not modern young person.
With Malawi facing a “youth bulge”, that is population growth in that group, there is an urgent need to change perceptions, motivate and involve young people in agriculture. One of the best ways to do this is to tap into information and communication technologies such as mobile phones. These, will inspire youth participation at different points in the agricultural value chain.
Youths have insufficient access to knowledge, information and education. According to FAO, poor and inadequate education limits productivity and the acquisition of skills, while insufficient access to knowledge and information can hinder the development of entrepreneurial ventures.
Particularly in developing countries like Malawi, there is a distinct need to improve young rural women’s access to education, and to incorporate agricultural skills into rural education more generally. Agricultural training and education must also be adapted to ensure that graduates’ skills meet the needs of rural labour markets.
Although access to land is fundamental to starting a farm, it can often be difficult for young people to attain. Inheritance laws and customs in Malawi often make the transfer of land to young women problematic. FAO recommends that loans to assist youth in acquiring land are needed, while leasing arrangements through which youth gain access – though not ownership – to land may also prove effective.
Inadequate access to financial services is identified as another principal challenge for the youth to accelerate in agriculture. Most financial service providers are reluctant to provide their services – including credit, savings and insurance – to rural youth due to their lack of collateral and financial literacy, among other reasons. Promoting financial products catered to youth, mentoring programmes and start-up funding opportunities can all help remedy this issue. Encouraging youth to group themselves into informal savings clubs can also prove useful in this respect.
Youths are the hope for the future of Malawi. As Malawi continue dreaming of being developed, there is need to engage more youths in agriculture.
*Mthawanji contributes to The Lamp