Engaging young people in agriculture is a crucial priority to maintain the food supply and economy.
Similar challenges also exist in Cambodia. Not only do the young people not want to stay in the countryside on the farm, they often want to move to the larger urban areas. This migration of youth could have dire consequences for the future of agriculture in a country where most of the population is dependent on farming.
The government is addressing the problem by exposing young people to the opportunities in agriculture and making an agriculture education more attractive and affordable.
And a group of USAID-affiliated researchers is doing their part to help.
The Root of the Problem
Cambodia has an extremely young population; one-third of its citizens are between 15 and 30 years old, according to Dr. Visa
lsok Touch, Cambodian Undersecretary of State of
the Ministry of Education, Youth, and Sports.
“Cambodia is an agricultural economy. Business in Cambodia starts with agriculture,” said Touch. “Farming is risky. That’s why a lot of young people don’t want to take the risk. But if you take the risk, you take the lead.”
Food and job insecurity are the main reasons young people leave their villages. “It’s easy to lure youth away with employment when they’re hungry,” said Vara Prasad, director of the USAID-funded Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Sustainable Intensification (SIIL). To promote global s
tability, he believes that involving youth in agriculture in developing countries should be a priority for the United States.
“Food security is national security,” Prasad explained. “Food crises are often the reason for unrest. You cannot have peace with empty stomachs.”
The lure of economic prosperity is a powerful incentive t
o leave the farm behind. Where are all the young people from rural areas — especially the young men — going? Cities like Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, or even to other countries like Thailand, where opportunities to work in garment and technology factories are abundant, as more and more international businesses outsource production.
If not reversed, the outmigration of young people from rural areas will create ominous costs for the Cambodian food supply and economy. Facing a lack of skilled laborers, lags in scientific advancement, agricultural market instability, and a deficit of financial and technical support on the farm, Touch is part of the team tasked with solving this crucial problem: How do we encourage young people to see a good future in agriculture?
Planting the Seeds of New Opportunities
Touch and others are tackling the task by demonstrating that agriculture is both a science and a business, with just as many opportunities to make a living and use new technologies as the big-city factory jobs youth are being lured to.
The Cambodian government’s goal is twofold: Keep
young people in the country as contributing members to the food supply and the economy, and encourage them to attend one of Cambodia’s agricultural universities.
The government has already established several technical high schools in rural areas to promote agricultural entrepreneurship. Touch even has plans to start a 4-H club in Cambodia, because youth engagement in agriculture is not only a national
priority, it’s something he cares about deeply.
So when Prasad and Manny Reyes, research professor at Kansas State University, contacted Touch about their plans to help establish infrastructure in Cambodia that will engage youth in agriculture, he was immediately on board. One of the outcomes of the
group’s collaboration was the Center of Excellence on Sustainable Agricultural Intensification and Nutrition (CE SAIN), which provides coordination and integration among U.S. government funded projects, development agencies, students, university researchers and farmers.
The CE SAIN model builds institutional capacity by training a new generation of agricultural scientists, and by helping farmers access new sustainable agricultural practices. One of the CE SAIN’s initiatives is creating linkages with youth in high schools.
Prasad explained that schools are an ideal place to connect with young people and their parents, because schools are a highly regarded community institution and teachers are the most trusted source of knowledge in the community. Schools are the perfect venue to push back on outdated, negative notions about making a living in agriculture.
“Most high school and middle school students think that agriculture is just digging the soil and planting the crops,” said Lyda Hok, director of CE SAIN and alumnus of the Cambodian Royal University of Agriculture (RUA) in Phnom Penh.
“They don’t really know the science of agriculture. We wanted to teach the science of agriculture and integrate it into an activity that might make them change their minds. They might decide to major in agriculture.”
That’s why Hok, Prasad and Reyes, with Touch’s assistance, decided to establish a CE SAIN technology park on the grounds of Ramsey Sophanna High School. The technology parks are spread throughout Cambodia, letting researchers collaborate and demonstrate their agricultural innovations in a real farm setting, working with local farmers. Bringing a technology park to future farmers — high school students — was a logical next step.
“I think that the decision about which profession to choose happens in high school,” said Prasad. “Somebody ignites a student’s interest in a subject. So we thought bringing a technology park to a high school was the best option to ignite interest in agriculture.”
Right next to the school building lies a fishpond, several demonstration plots and a set of interactive plots that were planted and maintained by the teenaged students as part of an agriculture competition — with a $200 cash prize for the winning team.
“The Royal University of Agriculture doesn’t have a formal way of recruiting,” said Prasad. “They told us that most of their students only apply for RUA if they don’t get accepted to medical school or business school.” CE SAIN wanted to flip the perception that choosing an agricultural education was second best, so they proposed the active engagement and competition among the high school students.
During the final presentation phase of the competition, each group of students had one minute to explain to the judges how they used innovations to grow their crops, including irrigation and pest-control techniques. The excitement was palpable at the award ceremony following the competition, as the high schoolers waited to learn which team had won the prize.
“Thank you so much,” a representative of the winning team said. “We are so excited!”
The award ceremony also gave Prasad a chance to announce the winners of scholarships to RUA, provided by the United Service Foundation.
“It was amazing to see the kids’ excitement,” said Prasad. “They really fought to win the competition, and the scholarship winners were so proud. We hope to make it an annual event.”
Prasad hopes that as CE SAIN continues to create trusting and educational relationships with youth and their parents, agricultural engagement will grow.