What can the land-water-environment ‘nexus’ do for young farmers in Kenya?


The agrifood system is one of the best examples of the ‘nexus’ of land, water, and the environment. In Kenya, as in some other African countries, there is a push to get young people to return to farming. But the way this is promoted often fails to demonstrate how young farmers ought to respond to the ‘nexus’ – and the challenges it presents for them to create meaningful livelihoods. Young people aren’t often included in thinking about how to govern the ways that land, water and ecologies are connected. How could this change?

This blog post draws on work conducted under the Governing the Land-Water-Environment Nexus in Southern Africa project, and accompanies a working paper by Grace Mwaura.

Read the working paper

Njango’s story

Njango, a twenty-something well-educated woman, lived with her parents on the outskirts of Nairobi. She attended a national high school and earned her bachelors (business) and masters (international relations) degrees from UK universities. After her first degree, she worked for a bank but not enjoying it, she quit to pursue a career in diplomacy. After six months of internship abroad at a UN agency, and searching for onward jobs, Njango realised that finding a job at the UN, or anywhere else, was a time-consuming and expensive endeavour. She decided to return home and continue tarmacking while under the care of her parents. It is during this time of waiting that she found the ‘youth in agriculture’ narrative attractive and considered becoming a farmer. I met her in 2014 on her fourth month of farming.

Njango first became a protégée of her mother, a poultry farmer who needed help with increasing her client base and managing the business. Employing her business skills and tech-savviness, Njango grew the business and increased profits. But because she was still unemployed and considered this to be her parent’s venture, Njango started to research on quick income-earning activities.

Agribusiness was top of the list for young Kenyans at the time, and after visiting several farms, Njango settled on organic strawberry farming. With no land or financial capital of her own, she borrowed start-up capital from her parents to establish vertical farming in a greenhouse stationed in her parent’s compound. During our meeting, the small greenhouse held 300 strawberry plants, and upon improvements, it would hold up to 1500 plants. Njango was lucky enough to have her parents’ support, and the only security she needed to provide them was that if the agribusiness failed, she would resume seeking a ‘real job’. She had invested in home Wi-Fi and a tablet from where she researched and kept records of her agribusiness, while also keeping abreast with her field of diplomacy, in case of any job opportunities there.

Njango understands the connections between employment, food security and economic development. Her perspectives on why young people should engage in agriculture are grounded on her understanding of the need to advance economic development while also ensuring a healthy planet. Yet Njango concluded our hour-long interview with a reflection that, while farming should be for the purposes of food security and economic transformation, for the young people, it was firstly about securing an income.

“I know food insecurity is huge but it has been about maize and beans for a long time… I hope many young people will remodel that and change it. But for most of us, it is the frustration of not getting a job. We are in it [farming] to secure ourselves; securing a livelihood for yourself and those close to you. Maybe there should be more focus, and even getting the young people to think about food security nationally.”

Indeed, this was true for many other educated younger farmers I interviewed in 2014 who, having failed to find a job, were now engaging in agriculture.

Like Njango, their farming was a result of an ‘opportunity space’ opening up, rather than an inherent desire to become farmers.  They farmed primarily to earn an income, with no guarantee that this would be their main occupation in the long-term. Of the sixty young farmers interviewed in 2014, we found that by 2017, almost 50 percent had already left farming or diversified to other jobs – small businesses, going back to school, or finding employment elsewhere. Others had given up altogether and were tarmacking for other income-earning opportunities.

Why is Njango’s story important to understanding the resource nexus?

What does Njango’s story tell us? Governments are strongly encouraging young people to get back into farming. But the story they’re told doesn’t encourage young people to think through, or take responsibility for, the ways that food, land, environment and water are connected and depend on each other.

This means that as young people move into agriculture to earn a quick income, they bring their own understanding of how agricultural resources should be used. They face myriad resource constraints, but their farming activities also make considerable demands on resources, leading to further constraints. For most young farmers, earning an income from farming comes at the expense of conserving natural resources, maintaining soil health, reducing land degradation, or managing water resources.

As land is often leased, young farmers are more apt to seek suitable farmlands rather than commit to maintaining land health. One horticultural farmer in western Kenya, despite knowing the benefits of organic manure for the wider ecosystem, insisted on using chemical fertilizers, pesticides, growth boosters and flood irrigation to ensure that she maximized her profits from her piece of leased land.

This is the case for many other young horticultural farmers who want to produce high value crops quickly for urban markets. Managing water resources is seen as being only about keeping down costly water bills, rather than the need for efficient water use for the sake of conservation. The need to enrich soils is thought of mainly as a way to boost production, rather than a long-term soil health goal. Environmental threats, such as increasing weeds, pests and diseases, were managed through greenhouse farming and the use of pesticides, among other quick fixes.

What is the future of youth farming and the resource nexus?

Four important factors will shape how young people navigate the future of farming and the resources they depend on to carry on with it.

Temporary occupation: First, young farmers may not remain in agriculture for long. This is partly because their farming ventures are constrained by the limited resources available to them. But their impacts on the resource nexus may also make long-term farming less viable.

Exclusion from governance: Second, young farmers are still not included in the governance of the resources they depend on. In the absence of this, bringing more and more young people agriculture could result in further strain on agricultural resources, and eventually affect the agrifood system. But if young people are invited to create livelihoods in a resource-intensive sector, it follows that they should also be invited to contribute to making decisions on how to manage natural resources. While a few policies exist on how youth are engaged, none clarifies the role of young people in resource governance.

Vulnerability: Third, young people are vulnerable because of the challenges some of them face in getting access to capital, and this affects how they interact with resources like water and land. Employment programmes need to take account of this vulnerability when thinking about how young people can be part of a more sustainable sector.

Wider challenges: Last but not least, context matters. Agriculture and employment are also affected by the complex challenges of urbanization, climate change, population growth and globalization.

Shaping young people’s agricultural livelihoods must therefore be considered in the context of youth agency, the resilience of young people and of the agrifood system, as well as the convergence of livelihoods and resource governance. This is why a ‘nexus thinking’ approach is essential for those involved in designing youth employment strategies that might contribute to sustainability.