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Having celebrated Youth Day on Sunday we must also reflect on the challenges and opportunities facing young people. Agriculture, the backbone of the economy and potentially the largest employer of youth, holds immense potential for addressing the country’s youth unemployment crisis.

However, recent trends indicate a growing lack of interest among young people in pursuing agricultural careers. One would think given the high unemployment among youth — 45.5% according to the latest statistics released by Stats SA — they would be eager to work in the sector. Yet, they often view the sector as a last resort without alternative opportunities.

This raises an important question: what can we do to attract more young people to agriculture? In a recent study I delved into this issue by drawing on 22 studies conducted over the past decade, national grade 12 statistics, university enrolments, yearbook reviews and job advertisements. I was able to identify five key areas for intervention. 

Introducing agricultural education in primary and secondary schools can ignite passion and curiosity in young minds. This early exposure to agriculture has proven to be a game-changer, making young people eight times more likely to engage in the field later in life. By incorporating hands-on learning experiences, field trips and guest lectures from successful farmers and agribusiness professionals, we can showcase the diverse opportunities available in the sector and inspire the next generation of agricultural leaders. 

The need for educational reform is not just a suggestion but a necessity. While technical skills are important, employers in the agricultural sector also highly value soft skills such as interpersonal communication, problem-solving and project management abilities. Considering the fourth and fifth industrial revolutions, our programmes should also focus more on data analytics and data management to effectively harness rapidly evolving career opportunities and support employers investing in these innovations.

Challenge stereotypes

The profit and altruism levers are important in attracting young people to the sector. We need to focus on the profit lever by including subjects such as entrepreneurship, agribusiness management and business ownership that stretch beyond the farm gate. With a heightened focus on environmental stewardship, social responsibility and human wellbeing, it is more important than before to retain our focus on more accessible food systems, food security, and a reduction of food loss and waste.

Young people interested in agripreneurship need access to financial and physical resources and comprehensive training programmes.

Collaboration with the media is crucial in changing youths’ perceptions about agriculture. We can challenge the outdated stereotypes that deter many young people from pursuing agricultural careers by showcasing successful young farmers and agripreneurs and portraying the sector as intellectually stimulating, economically sustainable, and full of diverse opportunities beyond the farm gate. Engaging social media influencers, creating compelling video content, and leveraging platforms popular among youth can help spread positive messages and generate excitement about the possibilities in agriculture. 

Young people interested in agripreneurship need access to financial and physical resources and comprehensive training programmes. Collaboration between tertiary institutions, the government, and the private sector is essential in providing the necessary skills and knowledge to foster successful agripreneurs. By offering joint training initiatives and resources, we can equip aspiring young farmers and entrepreneurs with the tools they need to thrive in the sector. 

Strengthening the role of agricultural associations is critical to bridging the gap between the sector and educational institutions. These organisations can serve as valuable platforms for networking, connecting students with mentors, and facilitating internship opportunities. By collaborating with universities and colleges, agricultural associations can provide real-world insights, guide research priorities, and ensure that educational programmes align with the needs of the industry. Moreover, these associations can advocate for policies and initiatives that support youth engagement in agriculture, such as funding for agripreneurship programmes and land and resource access for young farmers. 

Adapt curriculums

Universities have a vital role to play in this transformation. My analysis of SA tertiary agricultural programmes reveals a uniform curriculum across institutions, aligning with international standards. However, there is room for improvement in developing the practical and interpersonal skills that employers demand.

Universities and colleges must adapt their curriculums to include practical experiences, leadership activities, case studies, and the gamification of specific elements of subjects to ensure an interactive and immersive learning experience that develops critical skills.

Additionally, establishing strong partnerships with industry players can facilitate internships, research collaborations, and job placement opportunities for graduates. By fostering well-rounded graduates, we can better meet the evolving needs of the agricultural workforce.

Attracting and retaining youth in agriculture is a shared responsibility among universities, employers, and agricultural associations. Through closer collaboration and targeted interventions, we can create a pipeline of skilled young professionals ready to drive innovation and sustainability in the sector. By leveraging profit and altruism as motivators and implementing targeted interventions in education and skills development, we can cultivate a new generation of agripreneurs, researchers, and innovators eager to transform SA agriculture for the better. 

As we commemorate Youth Day let us recognise the immense potential of young people and the vital role agriculture can play in addressing unemployment, promoting food security, and driving economic growth. With concerted effort and collaboration, we can build a brighter future for SA’s youth in this dynamic and essential sector. The time to act is now — let us work together to cultivate a new generation of agricultural leaders ready to shape a more prosperous and sustainable future for all. 

• Dr Van der Merwe is a lecturer in the department of agricultural economics in the faculty of agrisciences at Stellenbosch University. This article is based on her academic paper, published recently in Agrekon. 

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