Forests and agriculture | Opinion

Can embracing tech make farming cool?

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So, who wants to be a farmer?

Get the right training and incentives in place and acknowledge the potential of technology to attract the next generation of smallholder farmers

“What do you want to be when you grow up?” It’s a standard question. And, for children the world over, it elicits a standard set of responses. “Actor”, “footballer”, “model”, “YouTuber”, “prime minister”. The reply you rarely hear is “farmer” – and, less frequently still, “smallholder farmer”. 

The omission is as logical as it is alarming. The vast majority of the world’s 500 million farmers live close to, or very often below, the poverty line. Their work is hard, their leisure options few, and their hopes for a brighter future minimal. 

Little wonder, therefore, that the offspring of smallholders are drifting to the cities in their droves. Indeed, oftentimes, it is their own parents who are urging them along, sacrificing everything so their offspring can have an education and escape their own lot in life. 

What’s good for rural youth, however, isn’t so great for food security. At present, around 80% of the food consumed in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia comes from smallholder farms. Could US-style industrial farming step in? Perhaps. Yet, even if policymakers wished it (which is far from clear), such a transformation would take decades.    

The search for sweeteners

So, what to do? Clearly, young people cannot be forced to remain in their villages against their will. The only answer is to make small-scale farming a more attractive career choice.    

That is easier said than done, admits Gotz Martin, head of sustainability implementation at palm oil producer Golden Agri-Resources. First off, compared to the bright lights of the city, young people simply “don’t think rural living is sexy”. Secondly, and more fundamentally, opportunities for a financially sustainable future look bleak. 

Correcting the first is largely a question of capital investment, either public or private (or both). A multiplex cinema may be a stretch for village in Kalimantan, but essential infrastructure – basic healthcare, education, power, transport, sanitation, telecoms, leisure, and so on – should be doable. In GAR’s case, it currently pays for 140 clinics and 280 schools across Indonesia, with a clutch of university scholarships on top. 

Economic viability is a harder nut to crack. Price premiums (or “living income differentials”), as recently introduced for cocoa growers in Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire, are one way forward. But, in a world of volatile international markets and weak border controls, pricing instruments are no panacea.   

Income diversification

To boost incomes, the current consensus points to a package of measures, starting with increased productivity and finishing, where necessary, with economic diversification. 

An illustrative case in point is the work of the Clinton Development Initiative in west Africa. In Rwanda, every $1 that the private US charity invests in helping smallholders to improve inputs, seed quality, agricultural practices and market access is generating $3.80 in additional income for participants. 

The food and agri-business company Olam has gone one step further. With cocoa farming’s recruitment problem in mind, it is training up young people in pruning, composting and other basic sustainable agriculture techniques. Once equipped, participants in the One Farmer, One Acre programme then work in groups of ten with local farmers to pass on what they have learned.

After initiating the programme in Ghana, Olam Cocoa is now supporting over 150 of these youth service groups in cocoa-growing cooperatives across Côte d’Ivoire, says Andrew Brooks, head of cocoa sustainability at Olam. “These young people gain an understanding of good agricultural and business practices, which is leading to better productivity and higher incomes for farmers.” 

Barriers: hurdling the farm gate 

Crucial as it is, providing the right incentives is only half the answer. Consideration also needs to be given to the other side of the coin: the factors actively preventing rural young people from becoming smallholder farmers. 

Many of these obstacles take on a very practical hew. First (as ever) is cash. Farming is a capital-intensive industry. You can be the best-trained agronomist graduate in the world, but without a farm or capital to buy one, the barriers to entry are almost insurmountable.    

A handful of commercial banks are beginning to explore the market. Uganda’s DFCU bank, for example, offers a loan scheme for “agricultural entrepreneurs”. A modicum of savings is needed by way of collateral, plus two years’ experience. 

Few other lenders are as enlightened. Even for young people from farming families, lack of formal title to their land (a common occurrence in Africa, for example) can make accessing capital nigh on impossible. 

‘Mind shift’ required

Less immediately obvious, but no less influential, are the social and cultural barriers facing young would-be farmers. Emmanuel Obuko, project manager for innovations at the Agribusiness Development Centre in Kampala, gives the example of Ugandan school children being obliged to till a patch of soil by way of discipline. “Imagine it, our curriculum actually teaches young people that agriculture is a punishment,” he says. 

Part of the “mind shift” Obuko would like to see applies to young people entering farming from non-agricultural backgrounds. While it might seem that cities are paved with gold, much of rural Africa actually remains “untapped”, representing a “big opportunity” for aspiring youngsters ready to give the countryside a go. 

Note, these youngsters are as likely to be young women as young men. Or, at least, they should be. Gender inequality remains a characteristic of almost every farming community on the planet. In Africa’s cocoa sector, for instance, fewer than 5% of farmers are women. 

Gender-related legal reforms (in some countries, women can still not obtain land titles) and policy shifts (eg greater gender balance in the governance structure of cooperatives) would be a good place to start. If nothing else, it would teach girls that farming isn’t just for the boys. 

Tech make-over 

Last but not least, don’t neglect asking young people themselves for their opinions. Such an exercise may turn up “unexpected factors” that experienced decision-makers may otherwise overlook, says GAR’s Gotz Martin. Having a phone signal is perhaps the most obvious. “You could pay a young person double, but if he or she can’t access their phone, then forget it.” 

He smiles as he says it, but he’s only half-joking. In fact, tech could well turn out to be one of the biggest draws for both attracting and empowering the smallholder farmers of tomorrow. ADC’s Emmanuel Obuko testifies to the “huge enthusiasm” that young trainees show when the prospect is presented of using a smartphone or tablet in the field. 

He argues that just the act of being internet-savvy means young people can bring real value to their communities, whether it’s searching for market information online, say, or connecting their cooperative to high-quality inputs at a reasonable price. 

As biotech becomes an ever more present reality on small farms and the data requests from buyers and regulators become ever tougher, a working knowledge of technology is set to become more and more important. 

As much as technology is set to transform how farmers farm, the chief impact on young people could be on how farming is seen. Tech is hip, modern, cool. Of course, image isn’t everything. Money still counts; all the more when it’s in short supply. 

But impressions still matter. School kids may not want to be farmers; but an “agri-preneur” or “start-up owner”? Now, that just may be a different story.    
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