The future of agriculture depends on attracting young, talented people who are prepared to balance risk and reward in order to deliver the healthy food we need in a way that gives them sufficient return for their labor and capital.
Agriculture, however, is not seen as a profitable career: its expensive to finance, the necessary land capital is difficult to access, and young people are excluded from decision making. With an increasing number of youth shunning agriculture, the agricultural sector is losing a generation of potential innovators, inspiring visionaries, and transformational leaders.
But what if we could bridge this gap by mentoring and supporting a new generation of people prepared to proactively contribute to innovative and sustainable agricultural development? What if we could fuse agriculture and entrepreneurship to make young people have a business oriented mindset instead of the subsistence mindset? What if?
These were some of the questions that were in our mind after a survey indicated that 94 percent of YPARDs 15,000-strong membership wanted such opportunities. After a great diversity of mentoring models were studied in early 2015, YPARD decided that to understand how mentoring can best benefit its diverse global network, a number of different approaches to mentoring should be pilotednamely face to face, virtual, blended, and group/peer mentoring. These programs aim at unlocking the potential of hundreds of budding young agriculturalists by providing opportunities to engage and connecting them to senior agricultural professionals in business, research, extension services, and ICT.
In 2017, we developed a report on one of the first comprehensive explorations of the impact mentoring can have both on young and senior agricultural professionals. As the report demonstrates, young people in agriculture who have received mentoring are likely to see and promote agriculture as a viable career, have increased opportunities to access funding (from seed funds to loans to scholarships), become more business savvy, and are invited to meaningfully participate in important conferences and events. They are seen as role models in their communities, enabling community resilience and better farming practices leading to more secure and diverse food supplies.
Take for instance the case of Esther Ndichu from Kenya. With her mentor Nicholas Korirs support, not only did she begin greenhouse farming and break even on her first harvest, but she also propelled a major cultural shift in her community. Many neighboring farmers who had previously been unconvinced about modern farming methods watched her success and began to replicate her methods.
Additionally, senior professionals who serve as mentors are better equipped to support young people in agriculture and often learn new things and rediscover a passion for their own work. A broadening of horizons has enabled both young and senior professionals to become more innovative in their own work while implementing cross-disciplinary approaches.
Another instance is the case of Fredy from Peru and Robin from the USA who met at an event for mentoring program participants the day before the 2014 Global Landscapes Forum. Realizing they had many overlapping interests, Robins research team hired Fredy to assist with a project helping Peruvian farmers regenerate their plots. They have since published several research papers together.
By and large, ten consistent areas of improvement emerged across the mentoring models. Some of the insights drawn include:
Face to face meetings enhance mentoring relationships and require investment.
Relationships must have an anchor or focus, but this must be flexible. There should be a concrete goal with room for flexibility for pairs to work on.
Take steps to address time poverty. Mentees must be encouraged to be proactive and not expect their mentor to chase them. At the same time, pairs could be supported to use digital tools such as WhenIsGood and Calendy to help them set meetings.
Help mentees ask for help. Training and check in procedures should be established to provide an environment for mentees to ask for help.
Set a nurturing, patient, and supportive group culture in all projects
Training and checking in is crucial. Regular check-ins are important for expectation setting, motivation, and also for observing problems as they emerge. Future programs should ensure that regular reporting by mentees and mentors is conducted in a way that is relatively unobtrusive, valued by all parties as helpful, timely, straightforward, and easy to apply.
Mentees need access to funding and practical opportunities.
Future program management and coordination is decentralized. It was clear that in order for the program to scale to reach more YPARD members in a culturally appropriate way, project implementation will need to decentralize.
Expand M&E design to capture longer term lessons and successes as the full impacts of mentoring are felt over a much longer time period than 12 months.
Operate from a more comprehensive and realistic budget.
The future of agriculture is not 60 years old. It is young. Very young indeed. There is a new generation of young professionals in agriculture moving to center stage with their ideas and ambition to become successful entrepreneurs, farmers, researchers, and policy makers. We all can chose to change the youth in agriculture narrative by believing in young people so that they can believe in others and become agents of change in their own circles.
And as one mentee put it: There are millions of young people out here, youth with big dreams but little opportunities and resources to realize these dreams. It is my dream that YPARD will reach out to more young people especially in developing nations, and help them unlock their potential.
This is our dream for youth in agriculture. What is yours?