7 Reasons why junior farmer schools hold promise for African youth

Youth Skills

7 Reasons why junior farmer schools hold promise for African youth

Youth walk home to Burini-Sharifow, a village along the Juba River in Somalia. Photo: Mohamed Jama/Mercy Corps.

“You can study and still not find a job, but if you can farm, you can go and do something for yourself.” Francisco, 15

Young people in Africa face many obstacles as they enter the world of work, but a junior farming program is helping to clear their paths.

If Africa is to prosper, its young and rapidly growing labor force must prosper – above all in agriculture. Farming is the continent’s biggest employer and biggest potential engine of economic growth.

The generation entering the African labor force now is the most educated ever, say the authors of a new World Bank report, but employment opportunities haven’t improved. Few wage jobs exist. Most young people work for themselves or their families on small farms or in household businesses. Underemployment in the informal sector is widespread, meaning that young people live in poverty or near poverty even when they work hard in fields and shops.

Started by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization in 2003, Junior Farmer Field and Life Schools have given life-enhancing skills to 20,000 12- to 18-year-olds across 20 countries. Here are seven reasons for their success in preparing youth to build better livelihoods:

1.   The schools bridge the gap between supply and demand for vocational training.
Most young people in rural areas don’t get past primary school. But Africa’s few formal agricultural schools and programs require at least some secondary education. In Junior Farmer Schools, young people who have no other avenue to vocational training learn modern farming skills.

2.   The schools complement formal education.
Literacy and numeracy lead to better farm incomes, in part because they provide the foundation for learning modern farming techniques. Since Junior Farmer Schools offer vocational training after school hours and admit only 12- to 18-year-olds, they don’t compete with the formal education system. In fact, some are based in primary schools, where they have helped boost enrollment, attendance and performance.

3.   The schools minimize opportunity costs.
Though classes are free, they require a modest investment of time. The weekly commitment of about 10 hours over a few days allows young people to go to school or work full time on a farm or in a household business.

4.   The schools build a broad range of skills that enhance productivity.
Young people learn about modern farming practices, including pest management, soil and water conservation, horticulture and livestock management. But farming skills alone won’t enable them to seize opportunities and face challenges and risks in their lives. So the curriculum also builds life skills, such as nutrition, child rights and protection, HIV/AIDS prevention and gender awareness as well as business skills like budgeting and marketing. Vocational and life skill topics are creatively integrated in the curriculum. For example, units on soil fertility are paired with units on nutrition. And participatory learning methods help build critical thinking and behavioral skills, like self-confidence.

5.   The schools help bring the poorest and most vulnerable young people into the mainstream of economic and community life.
Rural youth lack access to opportunities, services and networks. This is especially true for girls, young people who are out of school, and orphans. Tragically, Africa’s HIV/AIDS epidemic is creating a growing population of orphans who don’t have parents to teach them farming and other skills. Junior Farmer Schools target young people who tend to be excluded because of their age, sex and social status. Communities select an equal number of boys and girls while giving priority to those who are orphans or out of school.

6.   The schools are community-driven.
The Food and Agriculture Organization and its government and U.N. partners provide technical and financial support to schools. But local communities and volunteers run them – sourcing plots of land, recruiting facilitators, selecting young people, assessing training needs, choosing the curriculum and monitoring and evaluating their progress. Communities tailor the program to local needs, assess and improve its effectiveness, and support schools with in-kind contributions. This decentralized approach fosters relevance and accountability while helping to reduce costs.

7.   The schools help graduates move on to the next stage of their journey to decent livelihoods.
In their second year, participants apply and build on business skills gained in the first. Teachers guide them through the process of becoming entrepreneurs -- identifying opportunities and risks, creating business plans, and connecting with information and resources in the community. Resources may include markets, role models, microcredit, further vocational training in Farmer Field Schools (a kind of adult counterpart to Junior Farmer Schools), farmer groups, and relevant government services and programs.

Of course, young people in rural Africa need an environment of opportunity as well as skills to better their lives. Major new public and private investments are vital -- in agricultural research and technology, value chains, access to credit, irrigation systems, and roads for transporting goods to markets.

These investments must come from African leaders, donors in the developed world, and multinational and African companies. To judge by the plans and activities of the African Union, the Global Food and Agricultural Security Program set up by the G-20, and the Grow Africa partnership, the investment outlook for agriculture is promising.

Junior Farmer Field and Life Schools show that investing in the skills of young farmers makes good economic sense, even to poor rural communities. Now it’s time to expand the program so that young people can create a better future for themselves and for Africa.

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