Edward Mukiibi is working to reshape the negative attitude of young people toward agriculture by integrating an experiential learning model into the education system that exposes students to different facets of the agricultural value chain. Edward is transforming the perception of agriculture, and helping young people to appreciate the sector as a mainstream career option.
The New Idea
Edward is addressing the problems of high youth unemployment and a stagnating agricultural sector by reversing the negative perception that young people have of employment within the agricultural value chain. By incorporating an experiential method of teaching agriculture and income-generating gardens within schools, he exposes young people to the range of economic and career opportunities that the agricultural sector presents. Edward envisions a generation of young people with a renewed and positive attitude toward agriculture and as a result, a more productive and dynamic sector that is infused with the passion, professionalism, and energy of educated young people.
With unrealized wealth locked away in agriculture on the one hand, and high levels of youth unemployment and ensuing poverty on the other hand, Africa, and in particular Uganda, seems to be a paradox. Little has been done to close this gap but for the first time in Uganda, a concerted and highly targeted approach to resolve this paradox can be seen in Edward’s work. His idea is based on the understanding that the stigma surrounding agricultural employment begins at a young age and is reinforced by a lack of practical engagement in the agricultural value chain and the use of agricultural chores as punishment in schools. Edward is working to recast agricultural employment as a dignified and profitable option, by partnering with primary and secondary schools to engage students in income-generating agricultural production and by providing opportunities for interaction with successful players at different stages of the value chain. In this manner, he demonstrates to students and teachers that if done well, agriculture can be an interesting and financially rewarding profession.
Edward’s unique insight, and the potential role that schools have in recasting this negative perception, has led to a program that demonstrates and encourages careers in agriculture; thereby unlocking the employment opportunities available in rural areas and injecting new, young energy into a stagnating sector.
The majority of East Africa’s population is based in rural areas, and is composed predominantly of young people. Specifically, Uganda has a rural population of 86 percent, and 77 percent is under 30-years-old (World Bank, 2011).
High youth unemployment rates have led to an unprecedented movement of young people from rural to urban areas, in search of employment opportunities. This influx has placed considerable strain on urban infrastructure, which was not designed to accommodate a rapidly swelling population; resulting in increased urban poverty and the proliferation of slums around urban centers. At the same time, rural areas are left with an aging population that lacks the capacity to drive and sustain long-term g rowth in the agricultural sector (the historical backbone of Uganda’s economy, accounting for about 24 percent of GDP in 2010).
It is here that the paradox emerges; although Uganda, and most African countries, face challenges of persistent poverty and high unemployment, there remains unrealized wealth and employment opportunity in the agricultural sector. However, agricultural employment is negatively perceived by Uganda’s youth; and it is this stigma that allows for the persistence of high youth unemployment and the continued decline of an important economic sector. According to a 2010 World Bank report, the sector’s growth rate fell from 3.5 percent in 2009 to 0.3 percent in 2010. And the longer the sector stagnates, the stronger the stigma surrounding agricultural employment becomes.
Despite the magnitude of these challenges, there is little being done to tackle high youth unemployment in rural areas. And even less is being done to get young people to view the opportunities in the agricultural value chain as viable and dignified employment options. Many associate farming with their own experiences of poverty in rural areas. Additionally, rural and urban schools contribute to this stigma by using agriculture, or farming activities as punishment for bad conduct or poor performance. The lack of experiential or practical learning opportunities, even in a subject like agriculture, further exacerbates this problem—students have no chance to see or engage in the profession as a formal part of their schooling. While there were once agriculture clubs in Kenyan primary schools (4K Clubs) that provided young people with these practical opportunities, they were a part of a politically motivated intervention that collapsed when Daniel Arab Moi’s regime ended. Collectively, a lack of engagement, the association of farming with poverty, punishment and the past, builds a stigma among Ugandans and East Africans from a young age.
Understanding that this stigma is developed early on and reinforced by schools, Edward identified schools that would yield the highest impact from incorporating his program. He started with schools that explicitly use farm chores as punishment; this provided him with an entry point to also engage school administrators, teachers, and parents to advocate for the practices abolishment. Edward then leverages these relationships to introduce an experiential learning program in agriculture that is designed to be fun and exciting for the students. The process of envisioning and planning activities is participatory and involves teachers, parents, and students; this co-creation gains buy-in from these groups. Since 2006 Edward has successfully implemented this strategy and established operations in seventeen schools in rural and peri-urban areas across Uganda through his organization, Developing Innovations in School Cultivation—Project DISC.
Central to Edward’s recruitment strategy is a volunteer approach, which creates self-selected groups of only the most interested and passionate young people in each school. These young stars then go on to recruit their peers into the program. Once recruited, members are exposed to the various stages of the value chain through a series of engaging activities and projects. At the production level, students are involved in designing their school garden, picking crops, and tending to them until they are ready for harvest. Alongside this, they are taken on school-supported field trips to visit successful local farmers from whom they gain inspiration and learn best practices. At the supply and distribution level, Edward’s program incorporates visits to supermarkets, restaurants and hotels, participation in agricultural fairs, and cooking workshops. Students also gain exposure to the broader and international importance of the agricultural sector, by participating in related global and national commemorative events, such as World Food Day. Excited about what they are learning, a number of students independently utilize their skills to start their own home gardens.
Edward envisions a future in which agriculture is embraced in schools as a means to prosperity and self-sustenance. He understood that he could demonstrate how agriculture is a viable economic activity to students and school administrators if every school garden could go beyond feeding the school—and generate an income to subsidize administrative costs. To date, all seventeen schools that he works with have achieved this important milestone, demonstrating the value of agriculture to schools and gaining him the support of Slow Food International to expand his efforts.
DISC Project has an ambitious expansion plan to reach an additional 1,000 schools in and outside Uganda over the next three years. Edward wishes to see his program in five schools in each of the 111 districts in Uganda. To support his expansion strategy, he has chosen a decentralized system of district level community-based organizations (three already registered) that are governed by a national organization that manages overall brand and growth. Additionally, Edward has developed community programs and publicity that will create an environment more conducive to scaling his efforts. He has established community gardens in which kids demonstrate to their parents and community what they are learning in school; a “food in a basket” program creates new markets in these communities, youth-led activities in the gardens, and television and print publicity that features students’ work. Edward is working closely with the Faculty of Agriculture at Makerere University and through this partnership has organized visits to the university’s research institute for 500 schools and 300 communities. He has also set up a demonstration garden at the university for visitors to view. In this manner, students have exposure to new research and the possibility of an education in agriculture.
At a national level, Edward has partnered with public institutions, such as the National Agricultural Advisory Services, to advocate for policies that would support his school program. Edward’s work has been nationally recognized by the Ministry of Agriculture and internationally by a host of citizen organizations. He has created a new handbook, in which students can track their progress, providing a valuable mechanism to evaluate Project DISC’s impact. Edward is determined to leverage this support to quickly scale his work, and has identified a number of schools with whom he can partner in Kenya.
Edward was born and raised in the rural parts of Mukono District in Central Uganda. He attended a nearby rural school for his primary and secondary education. Agriculture was used as a form of punishment in both schools, and Edward experienced firsthand the longstanding effects of this practice on a young person’s attitude toward agriculture.
Edward’s parents practiced farming to raise their children, and he witnessed their struggles to pay for his education. Thus, Edward was conditioned from an early age to separate agriculture from prosperity. Against all odds, Edward made it to a first-rate university in Kampala on a government scholarship. It was at this stage that Edward’s view on agriculture changed. He realized that agriculture was a lot more than farming and presented far more opportunities than he had originally perceived. Edward also realized that, despite this fact, very few of his peers at the Faculty of Agriculture intended to pursue a career in the same field.
On a visit home and to his former primary school, Edward found this negative attitude to be dominant. He realized that his peers’ attitude toward agriculture was likely formed during their childhood in primary school.
This insight has formed the foundation of Edward’s work since. He informally started his work during his second year at university by vying for leadership positions in his faculty, which he used as a platform to advocate for, and promote, agriculture as a viable career path. Edward went on to establish DISC Project, as a vehicle through which he could continue this work on a larger scale.