Jobs in Agriculture? Young Bangladeshis Have Options
This post was written by Estera Barbarasa (DAI), Nahima Uddin (DAI), and Anup Roy (DAI).
Each year, an estimated 2 million young people join the labor market in Bangladesh, exerting enormous pressure on the nation’s economy to generate employment opportunities. The agricultural sector—which boasts an impressive 6 percent annual growth rate—would seem well placed to absorb these young workers. But in line with trends Bangladesh’s agricultural industry holds few attractions for the younger generation, which associates the sector with hard labor, financial risk, and unstable incomes. That’s a problem in a country where 128 million of its 165 million people are under the age of 40.
The USAID Agricultural Value Chains (AVC) project has made real progress engaging young people in the ag sector, in part by demonstrating that agriculture goes beyond farming, and opening up entry points across a diverse value chain full of opportunity. Here are four examples.
Ag Services? Think Professional Service Providers
In the past, rural Bangladesh had few trusted and trained providers of professional spraying, pruning, and other services. Orchard owners, to take just one example, struggled accordingly. AVC helped professionalize on-farm services to farmers. With AVC’s support, for instance, the agribusiness NAAFCO developed a formalized, professionally trained pool of service providers for mango orchard clients. It trained sprayers in the proper use of equipment and best practices in application and dosage—in the process changing spraying behavior for the better. Out of 85 service providers in the Jashore region, 20 of them were under the age of 30.
AVC’s commercial model has generated interest in the market regarding other specialized agricultural services—pruning, fertilizing, irrigating, cleaning, and so on—for value chains beyond mangos. As the commercial service provider market expands, more opportunities could be created for young Bangladeshis in this arena.
The Rise of Agri-Machinery
In the past two decades, the use of machinery among Bangladeshi farmers has grown significantly. Local service providers deliver pumping, threshing, land preparation, and other mechanized services for a small fee to their farmer neighbors, most of whom lack the capital to buy their own machinery.
AVC worked with agri-machinery firms such as Metal and Alim to grow their clientele. They trained local providers in new marketing techniques, such as promotional activities, improved after-sales services, and machinery repair. More mechanization in turn generates demand for machine operators and agri-mechanics, who increasingly tend to be younger workers, given the aging agriculture workforce in Bangladesh. Alim, Metal, and ACI Agro report that around 20 percent of their mechanics are aged 18 to 30, and they expect that proportion to increase over time.
Demand for mechanized harvesting is increasing as Bangladesh is starting to face a scarcity of agricultural day laborers and as new machine technology from China and India becomes more readily available and affordable. This trend will generate demand for young agri-machinery workers, and vocational training institutions such as UCEP are designing new agri-mechanics courses to grow the pipeline of young agri-mechanic talent.
Young Retailers Step Up
Bangladeshi input suppliers—purveyors of seeds, fertilizers, and so forth—have traditionally viewed farmers as one-off customers who may purchase one or two products per season. With its strong grounding in market systems, AVC helped input companies such as Partex Agro and Ispahani understand the full market potential of farmers who should be cultivated as lifetime customers and partners.
Input suppliers developed new retail models with forward-looking retailers, young and old. For example, AVC helped Partex develop “preferred retailer” networks and trained retailers on merchandising, store layout, and product showcasing. They incentivized retailers to implement promotional discounts and contests, organize demo plots, and set up farmer loyalty clubs. These efforts paid off in the form of more farmer customers and increased sales, with some input companies boosting sales more than 300 percent.
Young, entrepreneurial retailers, in particular, emerged as an important segment of the input suppliers’ networks in carrying out new farmer-client marketing strategies. Younger retailers were often among the first movers open to doing things differently, which encouraged companies such as Partex to invest in hiring and training young people. In the past five years, Partex has hired and trained approximately 200 retailers: 60 percent of them were between the ages of 18 and 30.
Safe Bets in Safe Food
Like consumers everywhere, the Bangladeshi middle-class increasingly demands higher-quality, responsibly produced fresh fruits and vegetables, and processed food that meets food safety and traceability standards. In light of this safe food movement, large supermarket chains like Shwapno are working to ensure the traceability of food products from farm to fork. AVC supported Shwapno to launch Bangladesh’s first certified safe food brand, “Shuddho” (meaning pure).
Not surprisingly perhaps, young people are particularly attuned to the new emphasis on environmental and food safety. At the 15 outlets that pioneered the new brand, 90 percent of the staff were under the age of 30. Shwapno trained its young entry-level staff on safe food knowledge and consumer education. Equipped with the right skills, these young employees are at the frontline of building consumer confidence in Shuddho and increasing sales of safe fruits and vegetables at one of the country’s largest supermarkets.
Back to the Land?
AVC’s experience in Bangladesh suggests that we can shift employer mindsets about young talent while at the same time changing youth’s perception of agricultural work. The agricultural value chain offers a rich range of opportunities for young people, and a ripe opportunity for Bangladesh to capitalize on its youth bulge in a way that stimulates growth in an already expanding sector.