Especially for young people, diverse portfolios for rural populations should be the core part of a well-thought out rural investment strategy, say researchers.

The first results of the Kenyan census conducted in 2019 reveal a gradual demographic transition towards smaller families coupled with a growing urban population.

Still, even for this dynamic African nation that recently rose to ‘middle-income’ status, its future inclusive prosperity and ability to reach the Sustainable Development Goals will depend on how the rural population, most of whom are farmers with a few acres each of rain-fed land, fare in the decade to come.

Rural households are the most vulnerable to the climate crisis because their livelihoods depend on erratic rainfall. Across sub-Saharan Africa, rural areas have higher rates of poverty, illiteracy and child mortality as well as less access to basic services, such as electricity and safe sanitation. The widening gulf between rural and urban zones is fuelling large-scale migration of rural youth to burgeoning African cities.

Governments and development organizations do prioritise agriculture and rural development in their agendas. For example, the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme suggests that increasing agricultural performance is the most efficient engine of poverty reduction and food security in the African continent.

This explains why many rural poverty-reduction schemes focus on agricultural technologies, such as investments in improved seeds, fertilizers and natural resource management to close yield gaps and drive a sustainable intensification of African agriculture.

A farmer shows his climbing beans. Apart from their abundant yield, they fetch better prices in the local markets. Photo: World Agroforestry/Danyell Odhiambo

A farmer shows his climbing beans. Apart from their abundant yield, they fetch better prices in the local markets. Photo: World Agroforestry/Danyell Odhiambo

Yet progress has been limited over the last few decades for agriculture-centred rural development. There are persistent yield gaps and food insecurity and the technologies promoted often fail to extend beyond pilot scale.

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development rightly calls for a new paradigm of rural development, with a broader view of what could be future sustainable livelihoods for rural families, taking into account rural–urban interconnectivity and more diverse rural economic landscapes.

Intensifying smallholders’ agriculture cannot be the only solution for rural development

The rural economy is not purely agricultural and while many rural families farm and have a strong attachment to the land not all of them are ‘farmers’.

study in eastern Kenya, in which we were part of, showed that only a quarter of families were engaged in full-time farming. Yet 60% of farm labourers and households deriving most of their income from activities outside farming still identified as farmers.

When asked about their future, two-thirds aspired to increase their farm incomes, for example, through irrigation, livestock or high-value crops like fruits and vegetables. Just a third looked beyond farming and mentioned transport, shops or other rural businesses. Only 6% of the farmers surveyed saw a future in farming for their children.

This may not be surprising. A team of agricultural experts have already questioned the potential of rain-fed smallholder farming, as practised by millions of rural families in sub-Saharan Africa, as a pathway out of poverty.

Over 80% of farms in sub-Saharan Africa are under 2 hectares (5 acres) in size. Although adopting new technologies has good economic returns per acre and could improve the resilience of these farmers, the small size of available farmland limits smallholders’ earning potential and makes it impossible to escape poverty purely based on farming.

Especially for young people, a diverse portfolio for the rural population should be the core part of a well-thought out rural investment strategy. This has been highlighted by the recent IFAD Rural Development Report calling for rural transformations to help youth become more productive, connected and in charge of their own futures.

John Rono runs a small-scale shop in western Kenya. He also farms to supplement his income. Photo: World Agroforestry

John Rono runs a small-scale shop in western Kenya. He also farms to supplement his income. Photo: World Agroforestry

But what data and evidence do decision-makers need to design tailored local development plans? Especially, as the latest Mo Ibrahim Foundation report underlines, African countries lack good data on diversity of rural populations and often rely solely on experts’ views to guide development investments. One blind spot has been that experts’ assumptions on what is best for rural communities could be ignoring those communities’ aspirations. This is never more important than in the context of rural youth.

How can we measure aspirations to facilitate sustainable livelihoods?

Rather than working with assumptions of what rural populations want, policymakers need to be more aware of the diversity of the rural households they serve and listen more closely to those we call ‘farmers’ to better understand their needs and what they aspire to. Aspiration is the strong desire to have or achieve something: an individual’s vision of an ideal yet realistic future.

However, measuring rural household aspirations in a systematic and replicable way to inform development planners is a challenge. Decision-making may fluctuate with the respondents’ moods over time. The way researchers conduct their survey could generate biased answers, where the interviewees express what they think the interviewer may want to hear.

One promising approach that avoids potential researcher bias is a tool called Sensemaker™, developed by Cognitive Edge. This is a survey tool that collects individual narratives and lets the respondents interpret the narratives themselves. The meta-analysis of the narratives combined with other quantitative data helps understand complex changes in a community by revealing patterns in social dynamics across many interviews. Data visualization using triads, for instance, helps quantify some patterns between the hundreds of stories shared.

Youth are more driven by their aspiration while older generation are more and more responding to immediate. Photo: World Agroforestry

Youth are more driven by their aspiration while older generation are more and more responding to immediate. Photo: World Agroforestry

Researchers from World Agroforestry (ICRAF), International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics and Bangor University recently asked rural households in three Kenyan counties to describe their aspirations for 2030 and how they would achieve them.

Data were disaggregated by gender and age to specifically visualise youth and gender-sensitive development pathways. Results, which will be published soon, indicate diverse youth aspirations with only a marginal interest in traditional labour-intensive farming but a strong desire to remain in their region paired with very high confidence in achieving their aspired goals.

Africa faces a rural youth dilemma in the coming years. There is a lack of decent alternatives to farming and not enough is being done to diversify rural economies. Technological and financial support for smallholding agriculture are not enough to create sustainable rural livelihoods.

Capturing drivers of decision-making and aspirations of rural households and using them for the design and implementation of development initiatives that trigger positive, lasting change is a promising way of facing the challenges and helping young people build a better, more resilient and more prosperous future.

This article is authored by Kai Mausch, and Dave Harris, originally published by ICRAF at http://www.worldagroforestry.org/blog/2020/03/23/why-measuring-youths-aspirations-key-sustainable-and-inclusive-rural-development

About the authors:

Kai Mausch & Dave Harris

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