Farming, food security are viable career paths

The youth have a crucial role to play in South African agriculture and ensuring that the nation has enough food, says Bharathi Tugh, KwaZulu-Natal branch manager for Food & Trees for Africa (FTFA). And agriculture is a sector in which they can find meaningful employment.

For 30 years, FTFA has been working to help farmers and gardeners grow food, and develop the techniques and skills to boost their production. This youth month, Food & Trees for Africa is encouraging youth to join the agricultural sector.

Agriculture creates opportunities for SA’s youth

But while the country needs more food producers, its farmers are ageing. The average age of South African farmers is 62, despite the fact that young people –– aged 18 to 34 –– make up a third of the population.

At the same time, youth unemployment rates in South Africa are almost four times higher than the regional average, writes postdoctoral research fellow Luke Metelerkamp in The Conversation. About 62% of South Africans between 15 and 35 years are unemployed and of these 60% have never been employed.

However, there are large gaps in the country’s agriculture system and a desperate need for more food producers.

EduPlant introduces learners to the food system

Unfortunately, agriculture has a poor image among the young people, and the sector struggles to attract youth to food-security professions.

This is why FTFA’s EduPlant programme has become an integral part of the curriculum at many schools, says Bharathi. Through its workshops, training and competitions which target learners, the programme undoes the stigma around farming. 

FTFA established the EduPlant programme in 1994, and offers schools in under-resourced areas training, resources and support to develop or improve their food gardens. Endorsed by the Department of Basic Education’s National School Nutrition Programme, EduPlant has worked at thousands of schools in its almost 30-year history and engaged tens of thousands of learners and educators.

A way to ‘be your own boss’

In 2017, Sabelo Mdlalose and friends started farming on a small plot in KwaMashu, Durban, growing vegetables for the local community. Today, Sabelo heads up the Iqabungelihle Primary Cooperative, which farms 2.5 hectares at the Zeph Dhlomo High School. In addition to growing vegetables, the team focuses on high-end herbs, such as parsley, rosemary, and thyme, and sells them at markets around the province.

“Now most of us are full-time working in the garden,” he says. While he acknowledges that farming takes patience and hard work, it gives freedom and job satisfaction. “You get to be your own boss and create opportunities in your community –– a roleplayer in our country and economy.”

There is more to agriculture than farming

Sabelo encourages young people to consider a career in agriculture. “If you can participate in agriculture, our economy will increase. We encourage others to join farming and are trying our best to show that it works, but you need passion and commitment.”

Agriculture offers an important opportunity for young people, even if they don’t want to farm, says Bharathi, who has been at FTFA for 25 years. “Our youth need to be encouraged to pursue careers in food security,” she says. 

“It’s not just about farming –– we need agroeconomists, soil scientists, plant production specialists, and even agricultural scientists and food technologists. The gap is  wide, and we need to advise young people that there are various career options.” 

Livelihoods must be sustainable to support people and communities

Financial stability is an important aspect of farming, and something that is integral to FTFA’s training, says Robyn Hills, FTFA Head of Programmes. FTFA runs over 130 food garden projects, about 85% of them are productive community-based market gardens, others are social and learning gardens.

There is a lot of focus on subsistence farming, when people produce enough for themselves and their neighbours, and commercial farms, which are giant operations. But in between, there is an intermediate level, and FTFA works to build its farmers and cooperatives up to that stage. 

“That’s where you see the greatest impact,” Robyn says. “Once (farmers) get to this intermediate stage, people are able to employ their neighbours. That’s when you start seeing real change. You want farmers to have buying power from local sales – so their overheads stay down and their profits go up”.

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