Global Youth Economic Opportunities Conference: ICT4Ag and improving the value chain
This year’s Global Youth Economic Opportunities Conference, hosted by Making Cents International on September 10-12, had two main spotlights, the "Power of Technology” and “Opportunities for Rural Youth.” The rural youth track highlighted the "roles that stakeholders must play in order for more young people living in rural areas to access formal and informal employment, entrepreneurship and financial opportunities.” The connection between the two tracks diverged on occasion, but many presenters highlighted the fruitful partnership between ICT and agricultural development that could help improve the lives of rural youth worldwide.
The opening keynotes on “how technology is accelerating youth economic opportunities for rural youth” set the stage for the rest of the conference proceedings. During this plenary we heard from several representatives working at the forefront of technology and youth workforce development, including Abigail Kaindu of CAMFED. Kaindu initially benefitted from CAMFED programs – they paid her school fees which as a young girl living in a rural area allowed her access to education that would have been otherwise unavailable. She now coordinates the Cama Leadership program. She emphasized that technology has the power to bring rural youth out of isolation: with better access to information technology, rural youth can connect with training, resources, and each other and improve their chances at securing employment. On the same panel, Jeremy Hockenstein of Digital Divide Data explained the most important role of technology in rural areas is to provide the knowledge, capital, and market connections that promote rural development but had previously been inaccessible.
In the session on "Tools to Support Agricultural Enterprise," we heard a tag-team presentation from the Fabretto Foundation and their partners at Mayorga Coffee, in addition to a representative from Making Cents International. Fabretto provides educational, health, nutrition, and community development programs in Nicaragua. Fabretto has partnered with Mayorga Coffee to build a value chain between the rural youth in Fabretto’s workforce development program and the coffee roasters. As a result more money returns to Nicaragua and the youth themselves. With the success of the coffee program, Fabretto is likely to expand into other high-value commodities like tea, chia seeds, cacao, & bee products. Hilary Proctor of Making Cents International discussed their Agricultural Enterprise Curriculum, a game-based education program that focuses on farm business cycles, record keeping, planning a farm business, purchasing decisions, group memberships, production costs, basic cash flow, assessing costs and benefits, as well as savings and credit. The curriculum can be adapted to local conditions, and is available through Making Cents International.
The Wednesday morning plenary sought to answer the question of “what do young people and rural development have to offer each other?” The panelists all agreed that there is no universal “youth” that policymakers are creating programs for, and discussed the importance of acknowledging the difference between young people’s local environments, the opportunities that are available, and the individuals themselves. James Sundburg of the Institute of Development Studies was particularly keen to make this point and drove home the importance of incorporating complexity into national and international youth employment strategies. Ann Cotton of CAMFED echoed Sundburg’s statements and brought the sentiment from theory to practice. She pointed out that although there are many agricultural innovations out there that would improve smallholder farmers’ yields, many young women are apprehensive about adopting them because they lack access to extension agents and are also risk averse compared to their male peers.
The plenary concluded with an acknowledgement that agricultural development is currently the most effective way to bring rural youth out of poverty, but to be wary of the types of jobs that agriculture provides because they are not always high-paying. Similarly, Branka Minic of Future Works Consulting warned the audience against training youth for entry level jobs – instead coach them through midlevel skills that will allow them to get higher paying jobs down the line.
Overall the conference provided lots of food for thought on best practices in youth workforce development and expanding opportunities for rural youth. The implications of information technology on rural youth are yet to be fully understood, but at the very least it seems as though it will provide new opportunities to access information, skill-building trainings, and markets that could in turn improve the livelihoods of this next generation of agriculturalists.