By Sengetile Matsebula

Agriculture is an essential driver of economic development and a sector of great opportunity for young people.

The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) reports that investing in agricultural innovations will help feed an additional two billion people by 2050, eradicating hunger and poverty by 2030.

Youth participation in agriculture can provide employment platforms in agribusiness and in the process help the country achieve food security through crop farming and livestock rearing. According to the Central Bank of Eswatini, in 2017 the agriculture sector employed about 37 140 people in Eswatini (12.9% of the 288 044 currently employed persons) – which indicates the potential for unemployment reduction through agriculture.

However, reports also indicate that the farming community in the country is ageing and there are very few entrants into agriculture, particularly the youth. The Labour Force Survey (2016) found that only 29% of the youth participate in agriculture amidst a high youth unemployment rate of 47.4%. This means that half of the country’s young people are not finding employment opportunities in the economy due to several reasons; a stagnant private sector and saturated job market, slow industrialisation, irrelevant skills vs market/industry needs.

An even sadder reality is that even those with agriculture degrees and the necessary skills in this field are looking for employment rather than using these as a stepping-stone into entrepreneurship. While it is true that we live in times marred by rife unemployment and limited economic opportunities, there is room for growth in the agriculture sector.

For as long people exist and for as long as the country continues to import basic and processed food from South Africa, there is room for Eswatini’s farmers to do better. The country needs food alongside innovative farmers who will view agriculture as a solid business rather than a side activity for feeding their immediate households.

For the longest time, the country’s model for agriculture has been about putting porridge on the table but because of a shift in our economic model, now people need to feed themselves as well as make sure there is enough money left to pay the bills and cover other livelihood necessities. This means that Eswatini’s households and smallholder farmers can no longer afford to venture into agriculture as a hobby.

Agriculture needs full commitment as a fully-fledged business at the commercial level. Each one of us in our corners has a relative or friend who has tried to make a quick buck in agriculture, failed, and reverted to the urban job market. Sadly, most of us have concluded that there is no pride and dignity in farming.

Yet, if our young people are given a strong nudge into the agriculture sector, they can be the innovators who will feed us, make serious money while they are doing it, and help propel the country into the much-needed technology driven agricultural industrial revolution. For this to happen, the agriculture sector needs a revamped marketing strategy. The country simply needs to make agriculture more of a tech-savvy business so that more young people can start flocking into it.

Presently, when young people think of agriculture, they think of their struggling elderly parents or distant relatives trying to make ends meet through farming. They think of the huge risks of putting up with unpredictable weather and climate, as well as the uncertainty of finding markets to offload the produce, which is rather discouraging to the young person trying to find a secure career path.

In ‘Perceptions of Swaziland’s Youth towards Farming’, Douglas Kibirge (and others) from the University of Eswatini found that the youth views agriculture as “an old man’s tale, a waste of time and energy”. Of course, it is true that the agriculture sector needs time and patience, the problem is that our youth need fast cash to overcome the daily struggles of unemployment and poverty.

Why do we desperately need the country’s youth to venture into agriculture? The answer is quite simple: Eswatini is still food insecure at household level, failing to produce even enough of its staple crop, maize. At the same time, many of our youth are unemployed while the economy is not creating any new jobs.

The literature available on the subject, including work by Douglas and others in their report on Youth Participation in Agriculture in the Manzini Region, points to a number factors such as low wages, access to capital, exclusion in agriculture policy formation, and lack of information and technology as the major culprits for driving youth out of agriculture.

Currently, the agriculture sector is the lowest paying in the country and commercial banks are more likely to shy away from funding agricultural investments because of their perceived riskiness. According to the Labour Force Survey (2016), the sector has the highest value of low pay rates, with the youth earning E16 per hour compared to E46 in the services industry. In essence, agriculture should be taken on as an individual or group enterprise where the people involved have a stake in the business rather than getting into the sector to be an employee.

Countries like Kenya and Nigeria have found a way to make agriculture more attractive to the youth through social media platforms like WhatsApp and Facebook. These platforms are used as educational tools to pass down knowledge among the youth through sharing of information and experiences in their different agriculture fields and through networking.

Wayan Vota (2016) found that countries like Uganda, Zambia and Ghana have introduced agri-digital finance tools like smart money, rice mobile finance, and nwK agri-services to help finance farmer investments. These digital platforms require no collateral, provide access to savings and credit via electronic wallet products such as mobile money. In South Africa, youth are investing in livestock without having to own farms. All they do is find a farmer to sell them a calf they (farmer) rear on their behalf and share the dividends after selling it as a mature cow.

Policymakers in the country need to change the face of agriculture and make it much more appealing to Eswatini’s youth. Science, technology, and innovation are critical ingredients in making the agriculture sector more attractive to our youth, particularly because young people are thrilled by the internet of things and application of technologies to find new ways of doing things. Government needs to launch a new marketing campaign that will override the current narrative and highlight the success stories of both the young and old who are making a profitable living from agricultural business ventures.