For years, international development practitioners have been applying a market systems approach to agricultural value chains, working within the systems’ new or existing rules and promoting access to the supporting functions that foster, rather than impede, agricultural growth. While continually refining this approach for greater impact, the development industry has also faced a question that is becoming increasingly relevant as of late: how can a market systems approach facilitate greater youth inclusion and allow youth to thrive in the global agri-food system?
Making Cents International had the opportunity to help answer this question while developing the Feed the Future Project Design Guide for Youth-Inclusive Agriculture and Food Systems: Volume II for USAID. At the outset, we decided to apply a classic Making Markets Work for the Poor (M4P) Market Systems Development (MSD) perspective to youth in agriculture. In the MSD framework, the core functions of the value chain – from inputs to markets – are influenced by a range of supporting functions and formal and informal rules. When applied to youth, the MSD lens uncovers the findings depicted in the graphic below.
To probe further into how a market systems approach can become youth-inclusive, we asked three follow-up questions:
1. How and to what extent are youth already engaged in agricultural value chain activities?
2. How and to what extent can youth access and are served by the supporting functions of a market system?
3. In what ways do the rules facilitate or hinder youth engagement in agriculture?
As a result, we reached several key conclusions that help us understand how youth engage in agriculture and how a market systems approach can strengthen this engagement.
In answering the first question, we confirmed what many before us had already discovered. Youth are engaged in agriculture – in production, in input supply, in processing, in transportation, and in a range of other value chain activities. However, their engagement is predominantly limited to unskilled tasks that reap low returns. Youth often contribute to activities in which they have little decision-making ability, so their role tends to be overlooked. And, perhaps most importantly, they often struggle to find the “first fit”, or “entry points” in agriculture where they can expand their role and meaningfully contribute over time.
To support the design of programs that can help youth engage in agri-food systems, we outlined a set of criteria that those applying a market systems approach should consider when identifying viable entry points for youth. We found that entry points that are both relevant and accessible to young people offer an important launching pad for more meaningful engagement over time. The following table lists the characteristics of these entry points:
When examining how supporting functions of a market system can facilitate greater youth inclusion in agri-food systems, we found that youth’s access to skills-building opportunities and subsequent application of acquired skills are the critical missing pieces. Few youth possess the necessary skills and competencies to engage substantively in agricultural markets. But, when youth are able to obtain and apply the right skills, they are more likely to succeed.
We all agree that youth need technical skills to engage in agri-food systems. What about other skills demanded by the market? A growing body of research shows that soft skills (such as positive self-concept, communications, social skills, self-control, and critical thinking) are equally, if not more, important predictors of long-term economic success. Other work readiness skills, such as entrepreneurial skills and financial literacy, are critical in enabling youth to navigate the changing economy over time. Thus, a market systems approach that seeks to strengthen its skills-building opportunities should aim to equip youth with the diversity of soft and technical skills they need to succeed. Unlocking youth’s talents with appropriate skills will enable agri-food systems to leverage the energy and drive of youth to foster agricultural growth.
The rules that govern agriculture influence youth engagement differently from that of adults. Although formal rules, such as legal land tenure, affect youth’s participation greatly – and often negatively – we found that it is the informal rules set out by family, peers, and communities that represent the binding constraints young people face. Youth engagement and potential for success in agri-food systems exist within this larger cultural context that tends to determine how young people live, work, and interact with others. Understanding how youth relate to their environment is important in allowing development practitioners applying a market systems approach to transform the rules that act as barriers to those that enable youth participation in agriculture. For example, when youth struggle to have control of assets (financial and physical), their ability to make wise investments in their agribusinesses is inhibited. Helping youth and their families create positive informal rules for negotiating and transitioning asset control to youth can facilitate youth’s ability to invest in their own agribusinesses, thereby supporting youth in seeing a future within agri-food systems.
In summary, creating a market systems approach that effectively supports youth inclusion also supports strong agriculture. Youth are already involved in agri-food systems, so we as development practitioners need to work at the systems level to provide them opportunities for more meaningful engagement, give them the skills and tools they need, and break down the barriers that prevent them from reaching their full potential. To learn more about youth-inclusive agriculture, see Volumes I and II of the Feed the Future Project Design Guide for Youth-Inclusive Agriculture and Food Systems.
 Proctor, H., Blum, R., Feige, D., (2018). Feed the Future Project Design Guide for Youth-Inclusive Agriculture and Food Systems: Volume II - Implementation.