Youth development is an important objective for many development programmes. A rapidly growing youth bulge' translates into an increasingly larger proportion of young adults and a rapid rate of growth in the working-age population. There is still, however, unexplored terrotory trying to understand (i) the impact of co-operatives on youth and (ii) how to establish and support co-operatives that are directly aimed at furthering youth development outcomes.
It's a commonly held perspective that co-operatives can play a key role in encouraging young Africans to become farmers. Pierre Van Hedel, Director of Rabobank in the Netherlands, estimates that the average age of smallholder farmers currently hovers between 50 and 55 in many parts of Africa. "Young people find the idea of selling mobile phones in large cities much more modern and appealing, but that market is already pretty much saturated. There should be more incentive for the younger generations to pursue a career in farming, and this requires that they can purchase and sell their products through a cooperative. There also must be sufficient land for their farm and the farm should generate sufficient income. If their farms are slightly larger, they can substitute machines for manual labour and start using more modern technologies, including more accurate weather forecasts, superior sowing seeds and cattle species, and soil investigation."
According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO)’s publication on ‘Youth: The future of agricultural cooperatives’, belonging to a cooperative can help to “develop the self-confidence, entrepreneurial spirit, collective action and social capital of its members. Cooperatives can enhance young farmers’ participation in policy dialogue so that youth-sensitive policies are more likely to be developed. Youth are an important asset for the agricultural co-operatives, not only because they ensure the generational renewal of the membership and will be the agricultural co-operatives’ future leaders, but also because they have a greater capacity for innovation and entrepreneurship, are more inclined to work with new technologies, and generally have higher levels of education than older farmers.” (See http://www.fao.org/docrep/017/ap668e/ap668e.pdf.)
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Guidelines in Youth-focused Co-operative Development
Initial learning around youth-focused co-operative development includes the following:
Consider level of access to assets, finance and social capital: Young people often do not have adequate foundations in place to support their success in or entry into co-operative membership or production and market activities. This includes access to basic assets, finance and social capital, or ways to protect any income or assets they may acquire. This could be owing to the support and services not being available in the community, in general, or young people not having access to these services. Young people, typically, have extremely low access to many tangible assets in order to produce or become a member of a co-operative. The most appealing opportunities, therefore, require few start-up assets, including land. In general, there is low access to financing and capital for young people because of the perceived high risk of dealing with youth. Opportunities within co-operatives or through market linkages to co-operatives that need extremely low or no start-up financing are, therefore, most appropriate.
Consider safety implications: Target opportunities that are safe for youth to undertake. In recognition of child protection considerations, production and enterprise activities that are safer for young people to be involved in are more appropriate. Recognize the importance of the safety of physical production and enterprise assets. Young people are particularly vulnerable to robbery. Co-operative's production strategies that require high-value stock or storage of stock could be at particularly high risk. Ensure that co-operatives are providing the right incentives and opportunities to young people by acquiring a good understanding of young people’s economic vulnerability profiles and risk tolerance.
Consider complementary obligations (family, education and social): Young people often have competing responsibilities, particularly related to education, family and income-earning commitments. In many circumstances, young people play important support functions in their households or are often head of households themselves. Co-operative membership responsibilities should, therefore, still allow enough time for youth to fulfill their other obligations beyond continuous production and work. Market opportunities should not be too demanding and time intensive. Young people do not have adequate time for training and should be encouraged to continue schooling rather than incentivized to stay away from school. Economic activities encouraged through co-operatives that require lower levels of training while providing immediate income generating opportunities are more appropriate.
Consider health considerations: Target opportunities that complement health considerations and physical ability. Where there are high incidences of various illnesses and infections amongst young people, it is helpful to focus on market opportunities for co-operatives that take this into consideration. This could translate into opportunities that are not as strenuous physically.
Consider gender implications: Young people are often regarded as one uniform group, without the recognition that there are significant differences between young people, particularly gender-related differences, that are key to the design and implementation of youth-focused co-operative development. Integrate different strategies for boys and girls. For example: girls are often restricted in their ability to move around freely within communities, have additional health and safety risks and have expectations of particular social responsibilities; boys often have their own expected social responsibilities, and male-orientated child protection and safety considerations; physical abilities differ between boys and girls; and different life skills support is often needed.
Consider overall well-being of young people: Youth-focused co-operative development approaches often focus on economic considerations without consideration of overall well-being. Integrate broader factors relating to well-being and protection into program design without focusing only on economic and financial impacts. Issues, such as the young people’s mental, physical, emotional and spiritual development, should be taken into consideration, including areas of well-being around food and nutrition, shelter and care, protection, health, psychosocial, and education and skills.
Consider stage of life: Young people of all ages are often treated as a group with common needs and programming strategies. Consider stage of life and situation as more critical than actual age in determining production ability, co-operative membership potential and roles, issues, and opportunities for young people. The sociological, psychological, health issues and income needs that a 15-year old and a 24-year old may face are likely to be completely different. Program strategies should be designed around these different circumstances and needs.
Consider parental involvement: Programs or co-operatives themselves seldom connect with caregivers who are often the decision-makers, restricting or allowing young people’s participation. If caregivers are misinformed about the objectives of a co-operative, they may permit youth's involvement in production or training but not in actual income-generation or market-based activities. Target messaging and educating young people AND their caregivers about the credibility, trustworthiness and usefulness of their involvement in co-operatives, realistic expectations of outcomes, and the behavior change expected through participation.
The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO)’s publication on ‘Youth: The future of agricultural cooperatives’, outlines a series of recommendations for increasing agricultural co-operatives’ empowerment of youth were drawn up by rural youth and young producers’ representatives at joint regional workshops held by FAO, the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and the International Movement of Catholic Agricultural and Rural Youth (MIJARC) in Senegal, Sri Lanka and Peru in 2011. These recommendations were refined during the fourth global meeting of the Farmers’ Forum hosted by IFAD in 2012, and are addressed to co-operatives, governments and donors.
Co-operatives should become youth-sensitive, particularly in their representation and governance. Youth sections should be created within mixed co-operatives, and gender inequalities should be addressed to ensure the active participation of young women. The creation of youth-only co-operatives should also be facilitated.
Co-operatives should provide mentoring, guidance and advisory services to their young members, so that they can become leaders and farmer entrepreneurs, and can overcome constraints (e.g., through access to training, land and credit).
Co-operatives should value indigenous/traditional agricultural knowledge and practices, while also promoting innovations to stimulate youth’s interest in agriculture.
Co-operatives, donors and governments should formulate and implement youth-focused agricultural development projects and programmes.
Co-operatives, governments and the international community should play a proactive role in raising the image/profile of agriculture. Co-operatives can be a platform for sharing / demonstrating farmers’ success stories, or linking young women and men to educational institutions and agricultural schools.
Donors and governments should provide specific financial support for the development of co-operatives that involve and/or engage with young people.