Inducing the Rural and Semi-Urban Youth to Engage in Agriculture
In view of the aging agricultural work force, high unemployment rates even among high-school and university graduates, and critical urban congestion throughout the world, it is crucial not only to retain the non-urban populations in situ, but also to device some meaningful mode of employment to 15-17 year-olds that seem to constitute a major portion of those who leave their homes and migrate to cities.
Even a cursory glance at the developments in agriculture world-wide, is sufficient to show one the three main trends therein, viz., regardless of the type of their ownership, increasing physical size of agricultural production units, increased mechanisation, and the increasing separation of the producers and end-users both in distance and time.
These necessitate long-distance transport, storage and processing that leads to waste, loss of flavour and nutrients and to higher food prices. However, if rural and semi-urban youth can be helped to engage in agriculture at or near their homes, it would considerably ameliorate the ills of the present irrational trends in agriculture. Moreover, it would offer youth an important path to independence through meaningful employment.
True, youth migration has a greater quantitative impact on food production in less affluent countries, but it is important to note that it has a highly undesirable effect on food quality in the affluent ones, not to mention the social problems associated with unplanned urban expansion.
So, it would be reasonable to suggest that we ought to formulate some appropriate global action to resolve this problem in general terms, so that each nation may select the areas relevant for its specific needs. In other words, the proposal will be a action template from which one could pick and choose according to one’s needs.
I think the kind of rural and semi-urban change that would be most beneficial to everybody, would require a considerable change in current politico-economic notions. Provided that we could persuade the political and economic establishments to devolve their power, hence, their modes of operation, our present problem may be resolved in the following multi-layered manner.
Naturally, a really holistic approach would be the means of choice to enable the 15-17 year-olds to secure a sustainable and adequate livelihood by engaging in agriculture.
Unfortunately however, such an approach would run into a number of difficulties, which would render it too resource-intensive for the countries where it is needed most. I believe this difficulty can be overcome to a significant extent, if authorities are willing and able to undertake certain system changes.
The greatest hindrance to a holistic problem resolution is the policy incongruence prevalent in every administration. This stems from their inability and/or unwillingness to render consistent the categorically identical aims included in diverse policy areas. For instance, health policy may be directed at the prevention of the so-called NCDs, while the trade policy may allow import, production, advertising and the sale of unhealthy industrial food and drink. This is an ubiquitous example of policy incongruence, which not only increases the cost of health care, but allows the investment of resources into an area that does not enhance public health.
For a start therefore, I suggest that we strive towards policy congruence with reference to youth in the least controversial areas like environmental sustainability, employment, agriculture, education, health and justice, with a view to expanding it into trade as soon as possible. Within the framework of employment policy, we can then move to agriculture as an environmentally sustainable, equitable and health promoting area of youth employment.
Before we go any farther, it is necessary to recall that the policy formulation and implementation represent two recursive endeavours. This means that policy congruence must obtain at global, regional and national levels if we are to expect worthwhile results.
Furthermore, even at the national level, central authorities are all too often insensitive to what local people really value, especially as many a national agriculture expert believes that his function is to prescribe to rural people not only what crops and animals they ought to raise, but also how to do it. A misplaced belief in ‘international best practices’ in agriculture is often not only inappropriate, but often flouts the local food culture.
Before we proceed any farther, let us try to indentify what drives our target group from their location:
- Lack of opportunities to earn a decent living, including facilities/opportunities to engage in agriculture.
- Family poverty.
- Unjustified belief in a possible better life in a city.
- nrealistic personal expectations generated by political promises and/or ‘entertainment’/’media’.
- Under valuing the vital importance of agriculture owing to the world-wide belief in the prestige of ‘high-tech’ propagated by trivial ‘media’.
Any one or more of these five causes could drive a young person out of his locale and head for a city, where a life of incredible squalor awaits him in some slum. A sceptic would get a chance to convince himself easily, if he only took the trouble to visit any one of those habitations around any city in Southern Africa, India, etc., where material evidence awaits him, perhaps in vain.
Obviously, what we need to ameliorate the situation would be to design and undertake a plan of action that embodies policy congruence, which could address the five issues described above. It is clear from the list that even though its power of motivation is not easy to quantify, prevailing public attitude to agriculture (5 above) nevertheless represents an important obstacle to us. However, dealing with it seems to be the least controversial, and might easily get wide political support.
Put differently, this calls for re-educating the general public everywhere on the vital importance of agriculture, and integrating in school education systems a continued teaching of values. I think this is getting more and more important as most children have no idea about what is essential for living, and an incredible number of them tend to believe ICT is the staff of life!
A related area, where both policy and facilities require a radical revision is education. Here, what I find difficult to accept is the current belief on the purpose of education. It seems to embody two notions awkwardly bound together, viz., everybody should aim for a university education’ or one that qualifies one to get a job quickly and earn a lot. In order to achieve the latter, emphasis is mostly on ICT, economics, and trade-related professions. True, this is commonest in affluent countries, but, this attitude to education is spreading widely, especially as it is promoted by several organisations concerned with ‘development’.
The policy change required here involves the acceptance of two simple facts; equal opportunities for education is not equal level of education for all, and secondly, equal education opportunities means paying due attention to inchoate abilities and skills individual children possess. Modern education system is stifling children’s ability and skill to become excellent farmers, craftsmen, painters, etc., by forcing them to continue a formal education they find irksome, rather than letting them leave formal education and to concentrate on their inherent skills and abilities before they are 15 years old. I anticipate howls of protest here, let me point out, we are not talking about equal opportunities, rather about not smothering talent by forcing children to learn what they are ill suited to master.
It will be seen that ‘motivators of migration’ 3-5 can induce even the rural young who are not influenced by the motivators 1 or 2 to leave for urban centra, because of the glamour attributed to city life, etc. Perhaps, it would be salutary if the ‘media’ in every country could be induced to show the extent of slum populations around cities and their real living conditions to the rural audiences. I know this is a naïve idea, for honest and truly unbiased reporting is only an abstract notion.
While family poverty could drive our target group to the city, it is the lack of facilities/opportunities to engage in agriculture to earn a decent living that is at the heart of our problem. So, a reasonable solution ought to provide such opportunities, make available the requisite facilities, and encourage rural youth whose families are not involved in agriculture to take it up as a profession.
I have already touched upon the changes needed in education and social attitude to agriculture. As far as I know, these important motivators of human behaviour has received scant attention in development programmes. The irony is that even the poorest country could bring about those two changes at a very low cost.
Once the youth believes that the agricultural pursuits are desirable and are actually more important to us than the every aspect of ICT, it would become fruitful to design and implement the ways and means to enable the rural youth to engage in agriculture in its widest sense. Before we look at some possible means, let us identify some reasonable areas in agriculture one which we may concentrate, and then the general way forward.
Selection of our goal for a given area should take into account the following in order to ensure its appropriateness in every sense:
- Approximate number of vocational trainees/workers intended to benefit from the undertaking.
- Local climate and geography.
- Local flora and fauna.
- Traditional food crops and household animals of the area.
- Possibility of guaranteeing a sound land tenure/grazing/harvesting rights to participants.
- Possibility of establishing dependable local storage/low-tech processing units, eg., drying fruits or nuts, etc./tool maintenance units within a reasonable distance from producing sources.
- Establishment of a novel financing system described a little later on here.
- Ensuring real political support from every level, i.e., national, regional and local, and undertaking effective measures to prevent uninvited and/irrelevant interference.
Making sure that 1-4 above obtains will not only help to ensure an inclusive endeavour, but it enables us to adapt our actions to the environment rather than degrading it by resorting to artificial ecosystem services. Moreover, it benefits from the empirical knowledge and wisdom locals have gathered over centuries. Of course, one may introduce new species of animals or food plants to an area, but, this has to be done only after a careful assessment of its environmental implications have been made. Further, one ought to consider the local willingness to use such cultivars.
Points 5 and 6 are concerned with property ownership at one level, but sometimes, point 6 involves managing and harvesting nationally owned entities like forests, lakes and rivers and the economic exploitation zone of the sea. Inept responses relating these have cause enormous environmental damage and unemployment for considerable numbers.
Local people should be given the custody of their forest, and harvesting it should be done according to best available ecologically sound practice by the local people for their benefit. I think the time has come to stop every large-scale logging operation in the rain-forest, for it has exceeded the sustainable level long ago. It would be wise to impose the same strict controls on tropical hard woods
As on ivory export. Make sure the forest will continue to exist before it is exploited.
Rivers and lakes:
The possibility of harvesting food from these is becoming increasingly difficult for two reasons. Over-exploitation by big harvesting units and building of dams and/irrigation canals. It would be a rational action by a government to ban large fishing boats from these, so that smaller ‘family owned’ boats could return or earn a better living.
It is not so long ago that thriving fishing villages were strung out along many parts of the coast of S. America, Asia and Africa. There lot has become progressively worse for two reasons. First, local operators with trawlers can offer the customers fish at a slightly lower price pushing the fishermen out of business. Secondly, Fish stocks in tropical waters show a dramatic drop in fish stocks owing to unrestricted fishing by foreign factory ships, which is often illegal, and sometimes allowed by the government owning the right of economic exploitation due to corruption in it. The question we ought to ask here is, Is it right that a foreign seller should earn a profit by selling our fish cheap to foreign customers, while we loose our fish stocks and our fishermen flock to city slums? A fisherman may then say, it may be free trade, but it certainly frees us from our freedom from hunger.
I spent a little time over the above issues, because of their part in driving people into cities, which includes our target group. A holistic approach obviously calls for measures to deal with background factors that exacerbate our problem. I do not think it would be easy to undertake immediate and effective action to remedy the situation, but, if we could, more and more people would take up these activities rather than migrate from their homes.
Next, a brief note on what not to do and why. Never stop a project in X years, especially if it seems to be successful. Never let the local people give up any part of their authority or rights in return for large cash ‘compensations’ which may have drastic consequences for our environment.
Never forget the project is intended to benefit the local youth so that they may earn a decent income by agricultural pursuits, and it is not intended to support distant purveyors of high-tech stuff. Never forget the vocational training and support to the youth would be most effective if the youngsters could make use of what they already know, rather than learning everything from scratch. This is especially true of harvested produce, household animals, food crops, and implements used.
Never forget high-tech is synonymous with capital-intensive undertakings that uses less and less labour as it gets ‘higher and higher’! Never forget that it is in poorer countries where unemployment is very high and the numbers of the hungry run into millions, unskilled youth in the target group flock to the miseries of city slums looking for something better to do.
Never forget we need labour-intensive undertakings to stem this human tide. Never forget tools and implements that require high-tech competence to repair and maintain is inappropriate, because it cannot be done by those who are living within a reasonable distance at an affordable cost. Never introduce varieties which cannot be sustained by the available ecosystem services, rather select ecological variants.
Any one or more of the following activities may be chosen to enable rural youth to become satisfactorily self-employed either alone, or in a self-owned cooperatives:
- Market gardening using suitable species.
- Small scale floriculture, where non-local species could be used.
- Apiculture for supplementary income.
- Small units of aqua-culture using herbivores like carp, tilapia, etc.
- Free-ranging poultry both for high-priced eggs and meat.
- Mixed small scale agriculture growing fruit trees, nut trees, yams and other suitable tubers, as well as some vegetables.
- Keeping other household animals including rabbits, Cavia, goats, etc. This may be combined with any of the above activities.
- Growing herbs/spices as an income supplement.
- Harvesting forest products as a source of additional income.
- Fishing as a family or a cooperative enterprise.
Unlike most others, I have not emphasised the importance of infra-structure including irrigation. This is not to deprecate their importance, but I think we need to act quickly and those structural changes are expensive and time consuming. Therefore, I favour an approach where we can do most with what we already have and what resources are easiest to get.
I suggest simple underground cisterns for rain water storage and covered wells, both equipped with had-driven pumps (unless they are excessively deep) ought to be used as sources of water when necessary.
Before I sketch how one may store and transport one’s produce to end-users, let me outline how one may economically preserve it for storage.
- Some fruits may be turned into home made jam by a producer cooperative. It may also be possible to make some popular pickles.
- Drying some fruits, nuts, spices and herbs.
- Salting and drying the superfluous catch (fish and prawns).
- Smoked meats (it is more wide-spread than one would like to assume).
In addition to the necessary political changes, improved law enforcement, equitable laws to regulate and guarantee the types of ownership discussed earlier, local and/or international funds, the following will be needed:
- Vocational training units within easy distance from as many potential trainees as possible, where skills immediately relevant for them could be taught principally by practise. Age of admission has to conform to the local law.
- Local cooperative units for sharing hand tractors and perhaps a van to transport of perishable items quickly to the market. It may also employ a mechanic for maintenance of those, whom one may choose from village youth for special training.
- One or more suitably central locations where produce may be preserved in small bulk quantities. This too can be run on a cooperative basis. These will also contain secure and appropriate storage facilities.
- Ideally, country’s own agriculture extension service should provide seeds and livestock required here. Subject to the conditions outlined, these may be provided by other local sources.
- Government help to build rent-free and reserved stalls where village youth could freely sell their produce.
- Real tax benefits and legal protection from harmful vested interests.
Finally, we come to the question of money needed to finance such an undertaking. I do not know to the extent to which a host country and non-governmental entities there, may be able to contribute, but I think a considerable contribution from international sources may be required here.
The scheme can be divided into three parts:
1. Survey of resources available locally, determining the maximum number of participants, then planning the details in collaboration with the authorities and representatives of the beneficiaries, and reaching agreement on the extent of external financial assistance. Part of this agreement would be to establish a project fund to be administered independent of national or international contributors. While strict accounting procedures are to be in use, propriety of resource expenditure should be determined with reference to relevance and appropriateness by local professionals versed in local agriculture and ecology. Every expenditure should embody the dictum:
If one wants to succeed in development, money ear-marked for it should be spent as close to the place one intends to develop.
The project fund will grant an establishment loan to a trainee adjudged capable of working on one’s own, when a trainee sends in an application to the fond explaining the plan and its financial requirements, and specifying one or more relevant mentors from the training unit who will undertake to help and guide the applicant when necessary.
The fond, mentor and applicant (more than one person may apply as a group) will agree on when the repayment of the loan is to commence.
Skipping nuts and bolts to shorten this already long submission, I jump to the repayment. It would defeat the purpose of this endeavour if we should charge interest on the loan. My novel approach is to ask the youth to prove itself not by paying it back, but getting it written off each year by an amount equal to one’s annual profit. Until now, we have been using an economic system whose inherent properties makes poverty and economic exclusion its inevitable side-effects, so let us now do something to those who have fallen by the way side at such an early age. Let us do something that would help them, but that will also show them man could live comfortably without making somebody else miserable.