Considering projections of sluggish economic growth in South Africa, there are opportunities to explore agriculture as an avenue for economic development and job creation for unemployed youth. The economy shrunk by 2.2% and 0.7% in two successive quarters, following the overall low-growth rate recorded last year, before posting a 2.2% upturn in the last quarter.

There is strong potential to create opportunities for the youth in commercial agriculture and agroprocessing. Given this potential, attracting young people to the sector, which currently contributes just more than 2% to the gross domestic product, is crucial.

The Quarterly Labour Force Survey paints a grim picture of decline in employment in agriculture over the past few years, with 3000 jobs lost in the second quarter this year. Given the right support, agriculture could create 1million jobs by 2030, according to the estimates of the National Planning Commission. Indeed, deliberate intervention can reduce youth unemployment, which currently stands at 52.8% for those aged 15 to 24 and 34% for 25- to 34-year-olds. Although mechanisation has contributed to a reduction in labour demand, agricultural engineers and biotechnologists, for instance, can attract young people.

Across the world, the evidence suggests a low interest in agriculture among the youth. South Africa is no exception. Lack of access to land and capital is a barrier to youth participation in the sector. Young South Africans, except for those who inherited land, are unlikely to own land or have capital to purchase it.

The results of the 2016 community survey by Statistics SA show that 54% of agricultural household heads were aged over 50, showing the low rates of participation among young people. AgriSA estimates that the average age of a farmer is 62. Some are relocating to other countries such as Australia and New Zealand. Russia is also luring South African farmers. The result could be a reduction in agricultural production in the country. While importing food is an alternative, it can be costly.

The negative perceptions of the agriculture sector among youth possibly emanate from limited exposure to available opportunities.

This could be addressed through provision of credible information. The Junior Landcare programme by the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries aims to provide dis- advantaged rural youth with skills- development opportunities geared towards the agriculture sector.

Uganda’s Developing Innovations in School Cultivation programme, which promotes agriculture careers among the youth, provides some good lessons.

Studies have shown that most students taking agricultural courses at higher education level were involved in agriculture at high school. This demonstrates that generating interest at an early stage is key to attracting young people to the sector.

Profiling successful young "agripreneurs" and other role actors in agriculture is critical.

Relevant government departments, the private sector and civil society - including youth formations - need to develop and implement a strategy to draw youth into agriculture. This will contribute to tackling unemployment and also ensure food security.

Mphela Motimele is a research specialist at the Youth Development Institute of South Africa (www.ydisa.org.za), a joint University of Johannesburg and National Youth Development Agency initiative.