The new generation of smallholder farmers in coffee-producing countries is facing new challenges that are leading the youth to believe that farming is no longer worth it due to productivity levels and profitability of the industry.
According to Sustainable FoodLab, there are about 106 million people between the ages of 15 to 24 in Latin America and the Carribean, the youth making up about 20 percent of the population. About 40 percent of the youth of this region is in poverty with about 30 million informally employed in the agricultural sector.
In this day and age, the rural youth has become better educated than their parents' generation, leading them to have an array of opportunities that previous generations could never have dreamed of. Costa Rica currently boasts a 96 percent literacy rate, the highest in Central America.
Although it is overwhelmingly positive that countries like Costa Rica have high literacy rates, this can potentially affect the agricultural sector in a negative way. Instead of being farmers like their parents, many young people migrate to cities in search of new opportunities.
According to the International Coffee Organization (ICO), this is due to factors like low income returns for high intensity work, higher education levels in the younger generation leading to different aspirations than their parents, climate change making it harder to prepare for harvest season, little opportunity in rural areas during the off-season and migration towards urban areas due to high demand for labor.
Kendy Vega, an 18-year-old woman from Las Juntas de Abangares, Guanacaste has noticed that many young people in her small community are beginning to migrate to the cities. Kendy is part of Bean Voyage’s new Care Fellowship that shines a light on the many opportunities the coffee industry has to offer. During the six months of the program, Fellows learn from the coffee professionals and others in the industry and build a viable project that aspires to promote sustainable growth and employment opportunities in the coffee-growing communities.
“Most young people migrate to study or to go to the capital [to work]” said Kendy. “Most people don’t study things to do with farming. If everyone studies things that have nothing to do with farms, nobody is going to know how to plant or know what we need on a daily basis.”
The current global coffee prices are unstable leading smallholder producers to lose money through the production of coffee. The current c-price from the market for coffee is at $0.96/lb. Unfortunately, research has shown that it costs on average $1.40 to produce coffee in Latin America. While more research is needed, we can also say that given the higher cost of living in Costa Rica, the situation may be worse. This crisis has led many young people to lose faith in the industry and in turn look for other ways to make a living, primarily in urban areas.
Although coffee prices are currently low, there are many opportunities that the youth can bring to the industry and still make a profit. Young people can bring innovative ideas and adopt modern methods of farming that potentially lead to the increase in productivity.
“We are fast learners,” said Kendy. “We like new things like technology, we can help older people who do not know how to use it.”
According to the ICO, rising incomes levels are leading consumers to move toward high-value agricultural products. This is opening the door for new opportunities within the smallholder community. Additionally, due to the growing world population, the output is expected to rise significantly with the demand in 2025 estimated to increase from the current amount of 150 million bags to 185 million bags.
While there are various ways that can motivate the youth in coffee-producing countries, it is imperative also to share the opportunities that the industry has to offer with them. That is, beyond what they may see as the unprofitable and arduous work of farming, there are other ways that youth can engage with the coffee industry. It is more than essential that youth and fresher ideas join to mold the industry and make it work for everyone.
It may be in the form of training or education that begins to engage youth in the important conversation. Whatever the form is, it is crucial that youth is engaged, and asked to sit at the table because they are the future of the industry.
“I am hopeful and I believe that through Bean Voyage I will help the youth of my community,” said Kendy. “I hope that everyone tries, it does not matter if they leave or migrate as long as they continue to support the community and producers in the area and country.”
As bleak as the current coffee industry and its crisis may appear, further involvement of the youth may be the key to the sustainability of the industry.