Youth-led Agricultural Initiatives in Kenya During COVID-19
How has the COVID-19 pandemic specifically affected youth involved in agriculture? What are the youth perspectives on the ground? As part of a team of Virtual Student Federal Service (VSFS) Interns this year with the USAID Bureau for Resilience and Food Security, I sought to find answers to these questions.
I asked Job Okino Okwaro — a member of the Utoma Youth Group operating in Migori and Homa-Bay Counties in Kenya — how he and other youth involved in agribusiness have been affected by COVID-19, and how young people have taken action to keep their local food systems running despite numerous challenges. Here are a few insights Job shared with me about life and work for young people in agriculture amid COVID-19 in Kenya.
Being busy before COVID-19
Before COVID-19, the Utoma Youth Group’s 50 members (who ranged in age from 18 to 35) were a force to be reckoned with in their local economies. To focus on production in agribusiness, members grew their own crops and raised poultry for exporting and selling to community members at local markets, hotels, and schools/universities in the area. The group also trained others in farming, market research, crop development, and food consumption trends to maximize agricultural productivity and profit.
Adapting among COVID-19 resource restrictions
Social distancing policies and travel restrictions due to COVID-19 have significantly affected food production as well as harvesting, exporting, local distribution, net profit, and community food security in Kenya. Utoma has not been able to continue to work with trading partners to export their produce in bulk in Nairobi, where it would sell at five times the price of the local market. Whatever produce the youth group members can gather is being sold to the local community at reduced prices since most people are not able to work and have lost purchasing power. Any unsold goods are donated to families who cannot afford to buy food. While these circumstances have caused the organization to incur financial losses, the young members believe that ensuring people have access to food comes first during the crisis.
To keep things going, Utoma group members adapted to the new situation by alternating morning and afternoon shifts in groups of 10 to harvest crops at the farm and individually deliver the produce to households since local markets have been shut down. Despite restrictions on movement, they are able to transport goods locally — as long as they wear personal protective equipment (PPE) and maintain social distancing because the goods they carry are “consumable and necessary.”
Feeling the financial crunch
Utoma’s ability to keep their agribusiness activities afloat and the supply of food going has hinged in part on financial concessions that will end soon. With little government support for youth agricultural groups like Utoma, they have had to look to other funding sources and partnerships. Utoma had taken out a loan of 200,000 Kenyan Shillings (KSh) (108 KSh = 1USD), from KCB Bank when the group started and had paid half of it back by the time the pandemic struck. KCB paused interest payments and provided a three-month grace period for repayment of the loan due to the COVID-19 restrictions. After July, the bank will require a reduced monthly payment of 9,500 KSh from 11,000 KSh. While Utoma has dedicated its limited funds and resources to providing for the community, many group members are worried about what will happen at the end of July when they must start repaying their loan despite the ongoing constraints.
Taking up agriculture during COVID-19
While many youth and their families and communities have been negatively affected by COVID-19, some say there have also been positive impacts from the pandemic. COVID-19 has opened more opportunities for young people to get involved in agribusiness. Many educated young people who have had to return home during the crisis — and others who weren’t previously interested in agriculture and saw it as the work of older people — have begun volunteering for the Utoma group. They have helped in the fields to cultivate and locally distribute produce such as vegetables and grains. Their efforts and energy have helped Utoma continue supplying food to the local community despite the lack of external support. Attitudes among some youth have also changed as they have adapted their lives and started to see agriculture as a critical field of work and a stable way to make a living. Job hopes these experiences impress upon young people the importance of agribusiness and encourages more of them to work in agriculture, grow their own food and provide for themselves even without supplemental income.
Job feels it will be important to compare what groups like Utoma are doing now to what they did before to find best practices for maximizing profit and building resiliency at different steps in agriculture production and distribution to protect the food security of the local community.
Training for youth in agriculture
Despite more young people getting involved in agriculture as a result of the pandemic, many have not been able to access important agricultural literacy resources and information that can help them learn how to make a sustainable living off agriculture. Important topics that youth in agriculture need to be educated on include phases in food production and distribution associated with value chains.
Job had previously had the opportunity to learn this information through a Training of Trainers program supported by USAID, where he represented Utoma as one of 80 participants from different youth-led agriculture organizations in the area. His training has proven useful during this pandemic; he feels better prepared in coping with the current disruption in the agriculture production chain. While the program has ended, Job believes it should be brought back post-COVID-19 to train a new wave of youth who are interested in pursuing agriculture for employment.
Providing a needed service to communities
Job was one of the first young people in his community to study and pursue agribusiness both for employment and to provide a needed service to the community. By working tirelessly with other Utoma members and volunteers to produce food that can be sold to community members at a reduced price and supply extra food to more vulnerable families that cannot afford to purchase food due to unemployment, young people are fulfilling their desire to help others through their business. Through finding this balance, Job works to ensure that everyone can eat. By his own account, the community has greatly appreciated the young people continuing to grow and distribute crops to households, especially in light of travel restrictions and market shutdowns.
Right now, Job is using the momentum from the additional youth volunteers to train and involve more young people in sustainable agribusiness so that they can continue providing for themselves and their community even if the pandemic continues or another disaster disrupts the value chain.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily the views and opinions of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).