How Agricultural Businesses Can Stem the Tide of Youth Migration

By Will McAneny, Communications Associate at Root Capital. This post originally appeared on the Chicago Council’s Global Food for Thought blog.

Agriculture forms the backbone of many rural communities in the developing world. But this is neither the tech-driven “big ag” nor the hyper-local “farm-to-table” agriculture that we’ve grown accustomed to in the United States. For too many people, it can barely be called subsistence farming: backbreaking labor with little profit. Two billion people in rural communities—the majority of whom depend on agriculture for a living—earn less than $2 per day. That’s not enough to get a degree, launch a career, or start a family.

Seeing a lack of opportunity in the only industry their community offers, young people leave in droves. Rural youth drive many of the world’s great migrations—from Mexico and Central America to the United States, or from West Africa to North Africa to Europe. Many begin by searching for work in cities in their home countries, which lack the infrastructure to support such an influx. When, by necessity, they move on to the United States or Europe, they learn that opportunities are scarce for young migrants.

A demographic crisis

Overladen boats capsizing in the Mediterranean or Caribbean. Exhausted people clinging to freight trains as they hurtle through Mexico towards the United States, not knowing whether they’ll be turned back when they arrive. These stories have become so frequent that they’re nearly routine.

In too many cases, the mass exodus of rural youth puts them in harm’s way. At the same time, it separates millions of families, while depriving rural communities of the talent they’ll need to succeed—a form of “brain drain” that leaves these areas with limited local leadership. There is a moral imperative to make migration something that works for young people and the communities they leave behind, rather than simply being “the best worst option” for millions of farming families.

But there’s also a logical imperative. The global population threatens to soar above 9 billion by the year 2050, meaning that soon there will be a lot more mouths to feed on a worldwide scale. At the exact moment that we need young people to start stepping into leadership roles in global agriculture, more and more of them are leaving farms behind.

We have more young people than we’ve ever had before, but they lack the support and incentives they’d need to make growing food a viable career choice. It’s a ticking time bomb. But it’s a problem we can solve.

At 23, Suyen José Gonzalez Centeno is one of the youngest members of Solidaridad, a small coffee cooperative in Nicaragua. (Root Capital)

Addressing the crisis

The topic of immigration often stirs heated debate. But what such debates often fail to address are the circumstances that drive millions of people to leave their home communities in the first place. To solve the problems caused by mass migration, we need to combat its root cause: massive inequality between the places migrants seek out and the communities they leave behind. Considering that a vast amount of international migrants come from small, rural communities, we should start by investing in the agricultural sector.

There’s a big reason why agriculture in the United States and Europe looks so different than in many rural communities in the global South. Federal, state, and local governments pour billions into farmer subsidies; private capital firms throw their support behind agricultural powerhouses like General Mills and Cargill; universities create undergraduate and graduate programs for young people who want to pursue sophisticated careers in agriculture. Even though the agricultural sector forms a relatively smaller portion of the economy of the United States compared to Honduras, the prospects to the north are greater.

In contrast, agriculture in the developing world suffers from chronic underinvestment. Many farmers struggle to reap the rewards of their labor; disconnected from larger markets, they’re forced to sell the food they grow to middlemen who take a cut of their already slim profits. But when they join a business—for example, a cooperative that aggregates the products of a thousand farmers, sells them to an international buyer at scale, and distributes the profits evenly among its members—everything changes. Businesses like these have the potential to create jobs, raise incomes, pay farmers on time, and offer pathways out of poverty for some of the world’s most vulnerable families. A coffee cooperative or sorghum processing plant forms the heart of many a rural community.

But all too often that heart is starved of the resources it needs to beat. Businesses in rural communities find it difficult to access credit, their staff is often undertrained, and—with extreme poverty inciting many young people from farming backgrounds to take a chance elsewhere—they lack the talent pipeline they need to innovate, adapt, and thrive.

Since 1999, Root Capital has loaned $1.1 billion and provided financial and agronomic advisory training to more than 650 agricultural enterprises, from cooperatives of indigenous coffee growers in Guatemala to staple grain businesses in Ghana and Senegal. More and more, we’ve been targeting businesses that offer young people the opportunities they deserve: businesses that invest in young farmers, position agriculture as a viable long-term occupation, and create space for young people to lead. Take our client COCAFELOL, a coffee cooperative in Honduras, which trains local youth in practical skills related to coffee farming. After these young people complete high school, they become eligible for specialized courses in financial management, organic agriculture and agronomy, and barista training. Young people gain marketable skills—and the cooperative hires them after graduation, acquiring a steady crop of young talent.

Looking to the future

Financing and training agricultural businesses is Root Capital’s bread and butter. But it’s not just agricultural lenders like us who play a role in stemming the tide of youth migration. We need partners.

For example, through the Partners in Food Solutions initiative, employee volunteers from multinational corporations like Cargill, General Mills, or Hershey partner with agri-entrepreneurs across sub-Saharan Africa to tackle their strategic and operational challenges. These businesses are addressing food security in their communities; and, with support, have the potential to employ dozens of young professionals in regions where jobs are scarce. We’ve also collaborated with the Mastercard Foundation to set up leadership workshops to coach young managers in goal-setting, decision making, and team management, priming them for career advancement and success. And through the Coffee Farmer Resilience Initiative, a multipronged alliance of corporate, public, and philanthropic funders leveraged blended capital to help coffee cooperatives throughout Latin America address la roya, a crop disease that threatened to exacerbate mass migration by imperiling the coffee crops that young farmers depend on. All three projects create jobs for the young people most in danger of leaving their farming communities. They also ensure that the agricultural leaders of the future are prepared to address the ever-more pressing global challenge of food security.

The rising tide of youth migration represents one of the greatest demographic challenges of our time. But with the smart application of investment, training, and partnership in the places that need it the most, we can transform that challenge into a massive opportunity.

Featured images – Sean Hawkey ©