Should we worry if Africa’s farmers are getting older?

Family farmersA ‘fact’ that is commonly used to support the case for doing something about young rural Africans’ apparent lack of interest in agriculture is that ‘the average age of farmers in Africa is increasing’. An aging population of farmers is seen to be undesirable, with the implication being that if nothing is done the agricultural sector will slowly crumble as the remaining farmers progressively work themselves into the grave.

Thus, according to some commentators, an aging farm population should be a wake-up call for policy makers: inaction risks increasing food insecurity, rural poverty, burgeoning urban slums and economic decline. Others see an aging farm population as a sign of a lost opportunity to bring young people into the sector and benefit from their energy and greater openness to innovation.

But these claims, and the evidence on which they are based, need to be looked at more closely.

In African policy debates it is often assumed that rejection of agriculture by rural young people – and their mass migration to urban areas – is the primary cause of the aging farm population. It is further assumed that among rural young people there is lack of awareness of the actual and potential opportunities offered by agriculture, and that they lack necessary skills and access to key productive resources. Another long-standing assumption is that young people are put off by hard, manual labour that is synonymous with much smallholder farming – the ‘primitive hoe’ much derided in the gender and development literature.

These assumptions lead to policies and programmes that seek to promote ‘farming as a business’ through awareness raising, business training, credit provision, mechanisation and help to access other resources such as land.

All this is interesting. But what is the real significance of such claims about an ageing farm population in Africa? What is their basis and their policy relevance, and what kinds of action should they engender?

There are some good reasons for caution. First there is the problem of the generally poor quality of official statistics, and especially demographic data, in much of Africa. (For an excellent new book on this important subject see the 2012 book Poor Numbers: How We Are Misled by African Development Statistics and What to Do about It by Morten Jerven.)

Secondly, and more particularly: how is the category ‘farmer’ defined? Who is a farmer? Is the definition based on full-time, part-time and/or occasional engagement? Does it include those who farm on their own account as well as those who work as farm labour; those who ‘own’ land but do not work it; and/or those who work land they do not ‘own’? Does it include all individuals within a single household who have some involvement with their own or others’ farming? Is it the same definition that was used previously (as the claim that the farm population is aging is about change over time)? Without being explicit about how the category is defined and how the data were collected and analysed, any claim that a population of farmers is aging must remain highly suspect.

Demographic trends in rural Africa reflect a complex set of factors extending far beyond the stereotype of a one way, once-and-for-all movement of work-shy young people to urban areas. For example:

  • changes in fertility and mortality rates and their effects on population age structure
  • the historical and continuing effects of HIV/AIDS
  • the movement of retired civil servants to rural areas where they invest in agriculture.

The effects of factors such as these will not be uniform over time or space: any analysis of the relationship between rural demography and agriculture must surely take account of climate, the quality of natural resources, infrastructure and market accessibility.

Are farmers aging equally rapidly in irrigated and dryland areas; in areas with intensive cash crops and areas without; in areas with contract farming and areas without; in areas of high agricultural potential and areas of low agricultural potential? If not, the common suite of policy responses referred to above become even more problematic.

Let’s assume for a moment that something solid underpins the dominant narrative that: (1) farm populations in Africa are indeed aging, (2) a major cause of this is that rural young people are turning their backs on agriculture and (3) an aging farm population is detrimental to society as a whole.

In other situations, observations such as these would lead to questions (and research) about barriers to entry (i.e. the ‘new entrants’ problem that features so prominently in UK agricultural policy discourse); about incentives to undertake the required training and the relevance and quality of these programmes; about remuneration and career progression possibilities; and ultimately about the broader structure of the industry or sector. To date, though, there has been little analysis along these lines for African smallholder agriculture.

Any such analysis must surely take into account the trends and developments that African agriculture has witnessed over the last two decades – from the rise of export horticulture,  the introduction of some GM crops, and continuing ‘rural livelihood diversification’, to the recent wave of large-scale land deals. Other factors such as young people’s changing aspirations and expectations and widening access to ICTs, such as mobile phones and the internet, would also need to be considered.

But first and foremost there is a need for vision: what kind of agrifood sector will provide work opportunities for young people (and others) that allow real incomes and capabilities to be enhanced, and at the same time address social equity and exclusion issues? This is the question that policy makers and development professionals – whether they start with a focus on young people or on agriculture – and citizens more broadly (women and men, rural and urban, producers and consumers, young and old) urgently need to address.

By Jim Sumberg

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