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Young people’s needs and rights must influence the transformation of food systems

Women farming cassava in Sierra Leone. Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash.

Young people today have both stakes in and influence over the transformation of food systems. The young generation is at the frontline of mounting challenges and uncertainties such as rising unemployment, rapid population growth and climate change. They also bear the burden of the social and economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic in the longer term. At the same time, youth are a key group to achieve sustainable development, especially in low-income countries where most youths reside today.

With a lack of resources such as land and financial capital, knowledge, and technology, many young people feel like they have to leave rural areas to find opportunities in urban areas. Yet, the agricultural sector holds untapped employment opportunities for youth, and addressing barriers to engaging in agriculture may be particularly important today. Agroforestry – an agricultural approach that combines cultivating crops, pasture, and trees – can address these challenges and make agriculture more inclusive, profitable, and attractive to young people.

Agroforestry Network, with support from SIANI, recently launched a policy brief discussing how agroforestry can improve the livelihoods of young people in sub-Saharan Africa. The brief also outlines concrete recommendations for policymakers on using agroforestry as an inclusive approach that creates new opportunities in food systems.

The launch event brought together a panel of speakers from governmental agencies, civil society, research institutes and farmers’ associations to discuss the role of agroforestry for young farmers in sub-Saharan Africa. The panel also raised how to use the momentum of youth inclusion addressed in the preparation of the UN conference Stockholm+50, being held in Stockholm in June 2022. Here are the three conclusions in the policy brief and the key takeaways from the discussion. 

Target young farmers in wider programmes

The transformation of food systems must take a holistic approach to rural development. Agroforestry is a long-term investment that can create sustainable and resilient food systems, but it also takes time, resources, and knowledge. Stephano Msuya from MVIWAKI (National Networks of Farmers’ Groups in Tanzania) emphasized that it is crucial to strengthen the financial inclusion of youth in societies as a whole, and promote land rights to make it attractive for youth to engage in agroforestry. One way to address this is to set up small loans groups or associations that target young farmers. MVIWAKI also works with community banks to facilitate financing.

Akilimali Ndatabaye Ephrem, PhD student at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa and Assistant lecturer at Université Officielle de Bukavu in the Democratic Republic of Congo, is currently doing research that seeks to understand the barriers, fears, and expectations that youth have towards starting a career in the agriculture sector. He has found that social norms may hinder the shift to agroforestry. Changing the perception of agriculture could incentivize young people to engage in the sector for their living.

Adopt a youth-sensitive lens to agroforestry 

For food systems to be equitable, profitable, and attractive to young farmers, we must acknowledge that everyone’s needs are different and that youth is not one group but many. The situation for young people differs depending on factors such as class, gender, and location. The transformation of food systems must thus be inclusive and the transition equal. An intersectional and youth-sensitive lens should be adopted to recognize and act upon the different needs and related social-equity dimensions within the youth group. Looking at the diverse youth group can shed light on the other aspects critical to young farmers’ ability to practice agroforestry, apart from the agricultural approach in itself, such as balancing work and family, or challenging power relations between generations and genders. For example, some young farmers might need to balance farming practices with school or care for young children. Young men and women may have different roles in the household or may not have access to the same resources.

Include young people in policy-processes

The last conclusion of the brief is that bottom-up inclusion is key. Youth need – and seek – to be included in policy processes and decision-making. We must advocate for youth to take leadership in agroforestry, especially in plans and programmes. They have often not been involved in national agriculture policy in many countries, both in the planning and implementation phase, said Stephano Msuya.

Civil society organisations, as well as research, are tackling these challenges in their work. Celina Butali, Regional Gender, Children and Youth Advisor at Vi Agroforestry/Vi-skogen raised the importance of having a platform for youth to participate and have bottom-up processes that collect all views – also from youth. A project by Vi-Agroforestry in Uganda has attempted to do this by establishing a youth-run centre for dialogue.

Another issue lies in the bridge between research and policy. Akilimali Ndatabaye Ephrem raised a concern that although research is available, it is not sufficiently picked up in practice, missing the potential to immediately impact policy. There is nevertheless a momentum of youth inclusion in policy processes. For example, the Stockholm+50 conference aims to bridge the divide between commitments already made and the reality where we find ourselves today. Bridging this implementation gap requires a commitment to action, where youth have an important part to play, said Anna Axelsson, Senior policy specialist for Environment and Climate at Sida, and the coordinator for the Stockholm+50 conference. In line with this, the Swedish government strives to have meaningful youth engagement at the heart of both the preparation and execution of the meeting.

Elizabeth Gulugulu is the Global South Focal Point for the Official Children and Youth Constituency of the UNFCCC and part of the Stockholm+50 Youth Task Force. She mentioned that there is a misconception that young people are not interested in getting involved in policy processes. Elizabeth urged us to look further and ask ourselves why youth are not interested: 

“There is a huge capacity gap that is there. How can you contribute to something that you don’t know? How can you contribute to something that you cannot articulate well?”, Elizabeth asked.

There is a need for co-creation for co-leadership to capacity youth, to make sure young people are on board and understand the issues. Both governments and NGOs are responsible for making sure that youth voices are accounted for, she added.

Read the policy brief Agroforestry and youth – possibilities and barriers by Agroforestry Network.

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Moving Africa Towards a Knowledge Based Bio-economy
3 December 2014
Stockholm, Sweden