In Kenya, a country with the highest youth joblessness rate in East Africa, thousands of young people are returning home to rural areas to take up farming, although some still see the profession as undesirable.
Nairobi, Kenya—When Francis Njoroge graduated with an engineering degree in Nairobi, he expected to earn a six-figure salary. Instead he found himself working as an electrician on a three-month contract, for around $200 per month.
Realizing permanent and well-paid jobs were hard to come by in the Kenyan capital, he decided to move back to his parents’ farm in Kimandi, a village about 93 miles away, and start his own business planting and selling tree seedlings.
“My parents are tea and maize farmers and always managed to pay our school fees,” Mr. Njoroge told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, walking around the farm in dark blue overalls.
Njoroge is not alone. Kenya has the highest rate of youth joblessness in East Africa, according to the World Bank, with nearly one in five young people who are eligible for work not finding jobs.
Poor job prospects and low pay in cities are pushing thousands of unemployed young people to return home and take up farming, said David Mugambi, a lecturer at Chuka University in central Kenya.
“Young people are increasingly realizing that farming can pay off,” he explained.
Njoroge used his savings to buy seeds from the Kenya Forestry Research Institute after realizing there was a shortage of seedlings among local farmers.
“At first I was making [$70] a month by selling tree seedlings to a community organization,” he added. “Three years later, I now earn more than 10 times that amount.”
Kenyan youth are not only turning to farming, they are bringing their digital skills with them to rural areas, according to Mr. Mugambi.
“For example, tech-savvy youth are very good at using mobile apps that tell them when to plant or what fertilizers to use,” he said.
Knowing very little about tree seedlings, Njoroge joined a WhatsApp group of 30 fellow farmers to learn about issues like growing conditions and fertilizers.
Like Njoroge, Phillip Muriithi, a teaching graduate from Kenyatta University, left Nairobi to return to his parents’ farm about 124 miles northeast of the city, and nows grow tomatoes and cabbages.
“I wanted to become a high school teacher but without a job or income I felt like a balloon drifting to nowhere,” he told reporters, standing in the middle of a field of green tomatoes in Mitunguu, central Kenya.
Muriithi also uses his mobile to keep a record of costs, fertilizers, and profit, and to market his produce on WhatsApp groups.
“My phone allows me to reach a wider audience than if I were traveling to the market – it’s just made farming a lot easier,” he added.
The Uwezo fund, for example, provides youth with grants and interest-free loans of up to around $5,000 to set up their own business.
But more investment is needed to make farming attractive to a wider range of young people, Mugambi added.
Njoroge agrees, saying his friends tried to discourage him from going into farming, which they saw as the preserve of “older, uneducated folk.”
Some regret making the switch to farming. Mary Wanjiku, a teaching graduate from Chuka University, who went home to grow tomatoes and onions, said her experience
turned into a “nightmare.”
Muriithi’s advice is to “start small” to minimize any disappointment. “I was really scared of failing so started with only a small chunk of land for the first two years,” he said. “But now my father is convinced of my success, he lets me use most of his eight-acre piece of land.”
First Published by Reuters