Members of the Phata Magomero Youth Club in Lilongwe show off their yields after receiving 10 weeks of intensive agribusiness training. Photo by: University of Illinois' AgReach Program

Rural youth form a substantial share of the population within developing countries and face high unemployment rates. Engaging youth in agricultural activities is a commonly cited solution, but making this work has remained elusive. Rural youth in many developing countries are actively seeking employment opportunities in urban areas after facing significant challenges to find farming-related or other work and access to land, information, finance and other services in their communities. The agricultural sector’s significant position in the economy and high potential for increased productivity give developing countries major opportunities to generate pathways for youth to start a farm or small agricultural enterprise.

Despite this potential for youth employment, ministries of agriculture and nongovernmental organizations continue to hit roadblocks and barriers in delivering relevant services that prepare youth to manage agricultural enterprises. Filling the gap will require building the capacity of youth and more effectively linking them to information, technologies, improved practices, land and finance.

“Given the important role of extension in engaging youth in agriculture, development actors would benefit from partnering with extension providers to create programs that help rural youth build careers and roles in agribusiness.”

— Paul E. McNamara and Andrea B. Bohn

In 2014, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, along with The International Fund for Agricultural Development and the Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation, reported results from a global survey of youth showing that the principal challenge in engaging youth in agriculture is “insufficient access to knowledge, information and education.” Other challenges identified included limited access to land, markets, inadequate access to financial services, difficulty in accessing green jobs and limited engagement in policy dialogues.

With the Global Forum on Rural Advisory Services Annual Meeting taking place this week in Ingham and Townsville, Australia, and focusing on rural youth and urban-rural linkages, it is timely to consider effective ways for extension to engage rural youth in order to help them connect to decent work opportunities.

What is extension?

According to urban and rural sociology expert Dr. Ian Christoplos, extension includes “all the different activities that provide the information and services needed and demanded by farmers and other actors in rural settings to assist them in developing their own technical, organizational and management skills and practices so as to improve their livelihoods and well-being.”

1. Extension services must change the way they see youth.

Extension services play a critical role in addressing these challenges, and well-functioning extension and advisory services are best placed to connect with youth and link them with agriculture-related opportunities.  

Extension services must first see youth as potential agricultural entrepreneurs and work with them to create decent opportunities. Extension services usually focus on established farmers, sometimes on the more commercialized farmers, at the expense of supporting women farmers and youth. Treating youth as legitimate clients allows the development of extension programs that directly engage youth using participatory approaches so they can have input on program priorities. Successful programs, such as Youth in Agriculture, show young people how to create remunerative opportunities in agriculture, employing an agricultural business approach, so aspirations for financial benefits and independence and some status are achieved.

In some cultural contexts there may also be barriers to young women farmers participating in extension activities, particularly those led by a male agent or in activities scheduled at times that conflict with traditional household responsibilities or require mobility that is inaccessible to many women. To overcome these constraints, extension service providers can meet with the clients in their home or village, or in “sanctioned” locations. Programs should consider providing transportation or subsidizing the cost of transportation to the program location and extension programs must make sure meeting times are convenient for women.

To target youths, extension services should also track within their monitoring and evaluation frameworks and report how many and how well youths are served.

Yeanoh Dumbuya, a WorldFish Strengthening Aquaculture Production (SAP, a USAID Feed the Future Project) in Sierra Leone field extension worker who has been trained by INGENAES, works with youth on sweet potato cultivation. Photo by: University of Illinois' AgReach Program

2. Extension providers should focus on opportunities within agriculture.

The experience of the AgReach program at the University of Illinois shows that extension services can reach youth and assist in providing economic opportunities for them in agriculture. The YIA project in Malawi had government extension workers teach weekly agribusiness lessons to youth clubs in rural and peri-urban villages.

Opinion: Agricultural extension as a crucial support to development

Global donors and private organizations are increasingly financing agricultural development to progress toward eliminating hunger and improving livelihoods. Although a crucial support, agricultural extension is often overlooked. In this guest column, Austen Moore of the University of Illinois’s AgReach program explains how robust extension systems and the provision of technical and organizational services to farmers could offer huge gains in agricultural development.

The U.S. Agency for International Development-funded Strengthening Agriculture and Nutrition Extension project, led by AgReach, provided coordination support, as well as funds for mobility and in-service training costs, to implement the curriculum. The program reached approximately 1,000 youth with agribusiness training, where participating clubs developed business plans and later received implementation funding support from NGOs and the private sector. The plans that emerged ranged from production agriculture using land on a rental basis to operating agricultural businesses, including poultry production and egg marketing that require little land and limited amounts of capital. The government’s district extension workers have since used their own program funds to continue the initial efforts made by the SANE project, indicating a strong demand for this type of programming at the local level. While the specific opportunities for youth in agricultural business in Malawi are tied to the local context, the public-private partnership approach has broad application across countries.

Extension service providers, NGOs and the private sector should continue to partner to better reach youth and link them to opportunities that strengthen the extension system and make it more sustainable. In Malawi, the YIA program linked the government extension workers with the resources — training materials and some limited mobility support — through the SANE project and Catholic Relief Services. Working in this manner promotes farmer expectations of regular government service delivery and can generate feedback to improve extension services delivery.

3. Extension providers should create internships, fellowships and entry-level employment opportunities.

Extension services themselves can proactively create opportunities for youth in agriculture through internships, fellowships and entry-level employment opportunities to create the next generation of agricultural leaders. In Uganda, the Uganda Forum for Agricultural Advisory Services has partnered with the USAID-funded Integrating Gender and Nutrition within Agricultural Extension project, or INGENAES, to deliver a fellowship program for graduate students in fields such as agricultural extension, agronomy and plant science to build their skills in the integration of gender and nutrition into agricultural and nutrition extension services. The fellows were selected through a competitive process and they receive support for tuition and fees, a small stipend and access to training and internship opportunities.

A spotlight on success

Dorcus Alowo, a fellow from Gulu University, researches the formulation and acceptability of a nutrient-packed formula for porridge made from locally available foods in northern Uganda. The fellowship program allowed Alowo to continue and complete her research and has been instrumental in giving Alowo and her peers access to the latest training, content and relevant material on gender and nutrition in agriculture. This has helped ensure that her nutritional formula works to secure rural households’ nutritional well-being.

“Trainings built my capacity and helped me to think differently,” said Alowo. She has also been active in the INGENAES community of practice meetings, where she learns from and interacts with a broad range of stakeholders involved in food security and agricultural extension. As a result, she claims this has changed the way in which she works.

 “You bring in gender, you bring in extension, now I am multi-talented.”

The fellowship program is equipping the next generation of Ugandan students with the professional and technical skills to become tomorrow’s leaders within the areas of agricultural extension, gender and nutrition development.

Many other examples of effective youth programming by extension services exist so ministries of agriculture and NGOs need not reinvent the template but instead can fine tune existing program models to fit local conditions. Examples include FAO’s Junior Farmer Field and Life Schools, the U.S. Cooperative Extension’s 4-H youth development model, YPARD programs in Nepal and other countries, youth nutrition clubs in Bangladesh, and many others.

Assisting extension services to engage youth requires several key ingredients. First, extension services and programs must see youth as clients and thus make them an audience for targeted programming. Second, extension providers working with youth should demonstrate how agriculture pursued as a business can lead to decent employment, autonomy and improved social standing. Third, partnerships between NGOs and public extension services can harness the staff and programming resources to reach youth clubs with agribusiness training in a cost-effective and sustainable manner.

Finally, extension organizations can directly create opportunities for young people through internships, fellowships and entry-level opportunities linked to training and capacity development. Given the important role of extension in engaging youth in agriculture, development actors would benefit from partnering with extension providers to provide programs to help rural youth build careers and roles in agribusiness.

To learn more about the how the AgReach program is improving agricultural, nutrition and gender-responsive extension services to benefit smallholder farmers, click here.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the authors

  • Paul McNamara

    Paul E. McNamara is the founder and director of AgReach. He is passionate about extension and committed to substantively improving the lives of smallholder farmers in the poorest countries of the world. Paul has over 20 years of international development experience, which is bolstered by his academic background as teacher, researcher and extension program specialist in the area of agricultural and consumer economics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
  • Andrea Bohn

    Andrea B. Bohn is the deputy director of the Integrating Gender and Nutrition within Agricultural Extension Services. She has worked in the field of international development for the past two decades, from leading efforts to integrate gender and nutrition in agricultural extension services to designing curriculum and student cultural engagement programs at top universities. Andrea's strong connections in Southeast Asia, parts of Africa, Latin America, and Europe with extension implementers, policymakers, and extensionists lends itself well to building knowledge and networks across institutions and organizations worldwide.