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23 October 2018

Reap what you sow: Turning agriculture into an opportunity for the youth in the Sahel

Photo: Ollivier Girard (CIFOR)/ Flickr.

It is already evident that a combination of rapid urbanization, swelling population and climate change will increase pressure on the agricultural sector, demanding innovation and work force to safeguard food production. This goes for the Sahel region as well as for other agrarian economies in Africa and elsewhere. Considering the average age of farmers is around 60 while most of the population in Africa is under 25, ensuring that agriculture offers attractive employment will be vital for food security in many countries on the continent.

But is farming an attractive career choice for the youth of today? What opportunities and constraints do young people see in agriculture? A new research project in Burkina Faso seeks to find this out.

In Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, 80% of the food supply comes from smallholder farmers. In Burkina Faso, agricultural production almost entirely relies on smallholder systems. Farming in this part of the world is rain-fed and commercialization is still low. So, erratic rains and higher temperatures, brought by climate change, are likely to make farming harder, challenging food security.

However, it is not all that bad: Income levels are increasing, more people have access to education, and urbanization and globalization connect people in new ways. These changes influence where people, particularly the youth, see opportunities for making a living.

“If we find out what stops young people from becoming a farmer and what presents an opportunity for them when it comes to agriculture, we would know where to allocate the resources to create the kind of supportive environment that will help young people who want to work with agriculture,” says Hanna Sinare, a researcher at Stockholm Resilience Centre and member of the Focali research network. Thanks to the mobility starting grant she received through Formas, the Swedish research council, Hanna is investigating how young people in Burkina Faso see agriculture and what their livelihood aspirations are.

Photo: Ollivier Girard (CIFOR)/ Flickr.

The results from this work will suggest priority areas for agricultural development of the country. Most of the research will be conducted on the ground through interviews with 15 to 24-year olds living in three different regions of Burkina Faso. These regions vary in terms of rainfall and crop diversity, as well as in terms of access to market.

“I’m not only interested in the aspirations of young people, but also in how they read their environment in terms of, for example, norms and access to land, money and contacts – all the things that influence what they see as possible or, at least, ok to do to earn a living. If agriculture doesn’t fall into this category, we cannot expect young people to choose farming as a career”.

Farming in Burkina Faso is hard work; It is mainly done by hand or with help of oxen. Soil preparation for sowing and weeding is time consuming and energy demanding. So, it is not necessarily a firsthand choice for the youth.

“We need to acknowledge the diversity within the group of 15-24-year olds. For example, I expect that young women and men don’t have the same view on what is an opportunity due to norms and access to land, and I think there will be differences between the three study sites because what kind of crops people grow, how the local market works and the opportunities for off-farm livelihood activities tend to have great geographic variations,” Hanna Sinare explains.

Like in the neighbouring countries, the proportion of young population in Burkina Faso is high, meaning there is plenty of potential workers to satisfy the food needs of the country. Viewing youth as a homogeneous group isn’t helpful. In fact, it contributes to the problem:

“Policy makers tend to assume that labour demand in agriculture will get satisfied simply because there is large number of young people in a country, but young people also go to cities in search for other career options. Understanding and addressing what young people aspire to and what stops them from working in agriculture can help rural development actors come up with a wider range of attractive job options,” says Hanna Sinare.

In places like Burkina Faso, where almost half of the population lives below the poverty line, pathways out of poverty must be a political priority. And these pathways must be identified by relevant stakeholders, including young people. “In the end of the fieldwork, I will gather representatives from the youth, extension services, NGOs and local government agencies to envision what desirable futures might look like, and pathways towards them,” says Sinare.

She believes that research in this field can make politicians aware that effective rural development strategies have to offer a variety of opportunities matching the needs and aspirations of different youth groups: “The first step is to map the ideas and thoughts of the youth. This will ensure the base for relevant rural development strategies.” The next step is to make sure these strategies incorporate the thoughts of the youth and that authorities invest in young people for the benefit of the entire nation.

Hanna Sinare is currently a visiting fellow at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) at the University of Sussex in the UK, and will be based at Institut des Sciences des Sociétés (INSS) in Burkina Faso 2019. Read more about Hanna’s research here.