Young South Africans want to farm. But the system isn’t ready for them

The agricultural sector could be a key source of job creation for young people.
Young South Africans perceive farm jobs as being back-breaking and financially unappealing, despite the job opportunity it presents. Picture: Shutterstock

Persistent unemployment has become synonymous with the youth experience across South Africa. Youth unemployment rates are almost four times higher than the regional average – 62% of South Africans between 15 and 35 years are unemployed and of these 60% have never been employed.

Add to this the fact that even those who have jobs are earning below what is considered to be a monthly living wage and what emerges is youth employment crisis.

The agricultural sector could be a key source of job creation for young people. But conventional opinion has it that they are turning their backs on the sector despite high levels of unemployment. So what gives?

Drawing on personal narratives collected from 573 young people across three provinces in South Africa, recent research has begun building a picture what young people think and feel about work in agriculture.

Overall, the prevailing notion that they are turning their backs on the sector seems to hold true. Over 60% of respondents felt that it was harder to make career decisions relating to agriculture than other careers.

Read: Coffee beans, potatoes and opportunity

But our research dispels the view that this is because of a lack of interest. Based on our interviews, more than half of those surveyed suggested that they saw a place for agriculture in the long-term visions for their lives. This was either as a useful stepping stone, or as an exciting option in its own right.

The problem wasn’t a lack of interest: rather it had to do with the fact that jobs in agriculture were either back-breaking and financially unappealing – at the subsistence level – or they were in large agri-businesses where workers are often treated appallingly.

Read: Extreme weather and low income hurt farmers who make 80% of food

These voices present a clear mandate to those interested in the future of youth, land and employment in South Africa: open up an economic space for viable family farming in South Africa and young people will throw their energy into the sector.

Stigma, risk and reward

Unsurprisingly, agriculture appears to carry a stronger set of negative stigmas than other careers. Examples included themes around agriculture being for poor and elderly people, on the one hand, or, on the other, for wealthier white people.

Agriculture was also perceived by many as a risky career path that involved a lot of hard work for little financial reward.

One 27-year-old put it this way:

“I was 17 and had to put through my university application. I sat my parents down and told them that I wanted to do farming as one of my career choices. They said no, farming was for old people and they didn’t put me {through} school to get dirty running after pigs. They wanted me to do an office job. I had to choose between my parents funding and career.”

Other themes that emerged included peer pressure, shaming, racism and substantial family pressure when considering agriculture as a career choice.

A 20-year-old from Limpopo said:

“I once went to a certain farm to buy tomatoes, while I was there, there was a huge argument between the white boss and a worker who put wrong grades of tomatoes, she was kicked and fell on tomatoes in front of the customers, I started to have questions about working in agriculture.”

Nevertheless, over a third of the young people we spoke to expressed positive vies about working in agriculture.

Many want to work in agriculture. But they said they battled to navigate the spaces between their own vocational motivations, the available work opportunities and the pressures they encountered from friends and family.

A 25-year-old from Kwa-Zulu Natal put it this way:

“I studied agriculture at university. It was a very good career path. I enjoy doing it a lot while my friends were against it, but I carried on {to} finish my year. But the problem came when I have to apply for a job. I didn’t get any job and that was painful to me and it felt like it {was} a waste of time because my parent have faith in me now I’m sitting home with my degree. But I still have hope.”


Stepping back to look to contextualise youth narratives within the broader food system presents good news and bad.

The bad news is that there aren’t enough farmers who fill the space between subsistence agriculture and large-scale agri-businesses. This “missing middle” leaves young people feeling trapped.

They either feel trapped by the poverty, isolation and backbreaking drudgery associated with rural subsistence agriculture. Or they face the unappealing prospects of unskilled minimum wage jobs on increasingly industrialised (and often racialised) commercial farming operations.

Seen in this light, it’s not surprising that young people are turning away from agriculture. The choices they are making simply reflect the fact that they are avoiding work that is demeaning.

There is some good news: many young people see potential. They aspire to entrepreneurial work with a deeper social purpose. Encouragingly, many believe that the act of working on the land to produce food is meaningful work.The Conversation

Luke Metelerkamp, post-doctoral research fellow, Rhodes University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Sadly, the only thing the narratives highlight is how clueless South Africans are with entrepreneurship and their lofty expectations.

There are some 500,000 Chinese, Somalians, Pakistanis etc living in South African, many of whom came here with little to no capital and made it happen for themselves, even in razor thin margin business and risky surroundings.

They don’t try get educated and shoot CV’s out and hope for a better day. They get started in a small business/trading and then get good it it, fine tuning along the way.

If you could just copy and paste that entrepreneurial spirit into South Africans, the wheels of this economy would start turning.. in every sector.

A common sense analysis pointing 100 times more truth than a random survey.

Agriculture and land are buzzwords in SA at the moment.

If it is true that over 90% of business startups fail why would it be different in agriculture. Possibly the most difficult one could choose.

There are some very expensive and possibly catastrophic lessons to be learned for SA in the near future.

Article makes me wonder if the system was ready for the first settlers of South Africa hundreds of years ago?

Yet settle and work the lands they did in their 6+ children families and they survived.

Perhaps it’s not about resources, it’s about resourcefulness.

True about resourcefulness. I wonder, does it reside in the DNA?

Farming way back in time when Jan set sail for the Cape in Europe.
The whole of Europe, the land, was owned by Church, their princes, and homemade kings. Farming, the labor, was done by serfs, on land, given to vassals to run in name of. Serfs, landing in the Cape, where needed to work and produce. In return they were given the land, title owned, from the V.O.C. They turned a wild country in a civilized on par with America, with bare hands an horses. This history can be standing for what farming entail. It require brains and determination. For them, in that time, never to go back and work as serf. Anyone wanting to go farming in South Africa today must know coming from, going to. It is started and owned by history, coming from Europe, not Africa.

The 500,000 is only 0.05% of the population of China. The similar % of South Africans are only 28,500. There is little space left after deducting +-15,000 commercial farmers (sic).

The idea that every unemployed person should become self-employed in agriculture is daydreaming at its worst. Very few of us are destined to ever become entrepreneurs. The ruling class (including Cyril) sits in Parliament and tell people ad nauseam what work they should do, but rarely lift a finger to do anything.

Mr Metelerkamp, to think that a “system” will help people to become farmers is wishful thinking. I know farmers, black and white who started as ordinary farm workers to learn the industry and through hard back breaking work eventually become farmers themselves.

The story that mr Metelerkamp and lots of people like him keep telling people that they can become farmers provided that a “system” is put in place, is only hiding the reality about farming.

I am sorry to say, but mr Metelerkamp needs a lot more teaching about the true meaning of farming.

The ultimate aim for most in agriculture is to either own land or equity in an operation. The fact is that to make an agric venture into a real business takes absolutely eye watering amounts of capital and risk. Personal experience of a venture in which the prices and costs appeared to be really good showed that it took R15 million to buy the farm and set up the required BASIC infrastructure…THEN R10 million to develop sufficient hectares to get to break even against operating costs….AND then cash only flows in only 3 or 4 months a year so about R4 million in working capital required to stay afloat. So R30m invested and finally starting to see positive cash flow to grow the investment….eye watering and straight out risk!

Thailand is a developing country like SA.

They have 6% unemployment because they employ 40% of the labor force in agriculture.

SA department of agriculture is sleeping.

End of comments.





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