Kenya: No jobs in the city, so tech-savvy youth head back to the farm (Trust)

March 12, 2018
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When Francis Njoroge graduated with an engineering degree in Nairobi, he expected to earn a stable, top-level salary. Instead, he found himself working as an electrician on a three-month contract, for 20,000 Kenyan shillings (about US$200) per month.

Permanent, well-paid jobs are hard to find in Kenya’s capital city. So Mr. Njoroge decided to move back to his parents’ farm in Kimandi village, about 150 kilometres away, and start his own business planting and selling tree seedlings.

Walking around the farm in dark blue overalls, he says: “My parents are tea and maize farmers and always managed to pay our school fees. So I thought, rather than be frustrated in my job or not even have one, why not go into something I know will bring me money?”

Mr. Njoroge is not alone. The World Bank says Kenya has the highest rate of youth unemployment in East Africa. Nearly one in five young people who are eligible for work can’t find a job.

David Mugambi is a lecturer at Chuka University in central Kenya. He says poor job prospects and low pay in cities are pushing thousands of unemployed young people to return home and take up farming. He explains, “Young people are increasingly realizing that farming can pay off.”

Mr. Njoroge used his savings to buy seeds from the Kenya Forestry Research Institute after realizing there was a shortage of seedlings among local farmers.

He adds: “At first, I was making 7,000 shillings (US$70) a month by selling tree seedlings to a community organization. Three years later, I now earn more than 10 times that amount.”

Mr. Mugambi says young Kenyans are not only turning to farming, they are bringing their digital skills with them.

He says, “For example, tech-savvy youth are very good at using mobile apps that tell them when to plant or what fertilizers to use.”

When Mr. Njoroge started, he knew very little about tree seedlings. So he joined a WhatsApp group of 30 fellow farmers to learn about issues such as growing conditions and fertilizer. He also uses social media to sell his seedlings.

He says, “I take pictures of my produce, upload them to WhatsApp with a price tag, and then take calls from interested buyers.”

Phillip Muriithi graduated with a degree in teaching from Kenyatta University. Like Mr. Njoroge, he left Nairobi to return to his parents’ farm. Now he grows tomatoes and cabbages about 200 kilometres northeast of the city.

He explains, “I wanted to become a high school teacher, but without a job or income, I felt like a balloon drifting to nowhere.” He adds, “Living in the city was so expensive. But with farming, I was assured of food, a small income, and [I] didn’t have to pay rent.”

Mr. Muriithi uses his mobile phone to keep a record of costs, fertilizers applied, and profit, and to market his produce on WhatsApp.

He adds, “My phone allows me to reach a wider audience than if I were travelling to the market—it’s just made farming a lot easier.”

Mr. Mugambi says the Kenyan government is trying to promote entrepreneurship among young people by improving their access to credit.

For example, the Uwezo Fund provides young people with grants and interest-free loans of up to 500,000 shillings (about US$5,000) to set up their own businesses.

But Mr. Mugambi says more investment is needed to make farming attractive to a wider range of young people.

He adds, “Many youth still see returning home as a failure and farming as a lowly affair.”

Mr. Njoroge agrees. He says his friends tried to discourage him from going into farming, which they saw as a job for “older, uneducated folk.”

Some young people regret making the switch to farming. Mary Wanjiku is a teaching graduate from Chuka University who went home to grow onions and tomatoes. Growing tomatoes requires significant capital and the crop is susceptible to disease. Ms. Wanjiku says her experience turned into a “nightmare.”

She explains, “The little capital I had got used up in buying fertilizers, manure, and seeds, and I nearly lost my entire tomato harvest to an attack by bacterial wilt.” She now sells second-hand clothes instead.

Mr. Muriithi advises other young farmers to “start small” to minimize disappointment.

He says: “I was really scared of failing, so [I] started with only a small chunk of land for the first two years. But now my father is convinced of my success, [so] he lets me use most of his eight-acre piece of land.”

This story was adapted from an article titled, “Without city jobs, tech-savvy Kenyan youth head back to the farm” published by the Thomson Reuters Foundation. To read the original article, please see: http://news.trust.org/item/20180219160032-ovn32/

Photo:Francis Njoro and others work at a tree seedling farm. Credit: Thomson Reuters / Caroline Wambui