Agriculture in Nepal: How do we inspire a new generation to go into farming?

Sulav Paudel, an entomologist with a partner organization based in Kathmandu, presents his ideas on how to encourage young Nepalese to go into agriculture.

farmer plows with oxen
A farmer in Nepal plows his field with two oxen. (Photo by Mike Mulvaney)

Paudel is the IPM Innovation Lab program coordinator at iDE-Nepal, an NGO in Nepal and a partner organization. Paudel has a Master’s degree in entomology and international agriculture from Penn State. He was worked and studied in Brazil, Bangladesh, and Russia. He currently lives and works in Kathmandu.

Long hours, intense physical labor, volatile market prices, low pay, and uncertainties: who would want to be a farmer today? It’s something that all of us – consumers, producers, traders, policymakers and NGOs – need to think about seriously. When I go to the grocery store here in Nepal, I pay a few rupees for the food I eat. But I don’t see what’s behind all the food in the store. I don’t see the farmers who help bring fruits and vegetables to my table.

Agriculture in Nepal, which has long been based on subsistence farming, remains the mainstay of the national economy, making up one third of total GDP. However, the once highly regarded profession of farming has been losing its charm over the last few decades, and we haven’t been able to inspire a new generation to go into it. The farming population is aging rapidly, and a new generation is running away from agricultural work.

Who is going to take up the challenge of inspiring young people to farm?

In the 1980s, about 90% of Nepalese worked in agriculture, compared to only 60% today. Farmers in Nepal are selling their land and moving to cities in search of more sophisticated jobs. Young people just don’t want to farm.

They are turned off by hard labor and a low income. No one is motivated to till the land and wait a year or more for a meager profit, when they could sit behind computers or work abroad making handsome amounts of money. It is estimated that more than two million Nepalese work abroad (most of them young people) at low-skilled jobs such as domestic worker or construction worker, leaving mostly women, children and the elderly behind.

women farmers attend workshop
Women farmers attend a workshop. (Photo by Sulav Paudel)

How do we inspire a new generation to go into farming?

First, we must change negative perceptions of the profession. Young people still view agriculture as a dead-end career that entails life-long labor on a farm. We must promote public policy, education curricula and publicity that present agriculture as a profitable and rewarding avenue for young people – one that will fulfill their energy, drive and ambition. Improved access to finance, locally adapted inputs, tools such as mobile phone apps, training young people on different areas of farming – from production to marketing – and appropriate farm mechanization should be emphasized, demonstrating that farmers can become more productive.

Second, the government, in collaboration with the private sector, should develop financial tools for agricultural projects managed and run by young farmers, particularly those in rural areas. Few recent governments have come up with programs to provide youth with loans for agricultural enterprises, and existing mechanisms to distribute loans are immature and non-transparent. Thus, it’s important for the government to design a merit-based and transparent selection process along with providing initial training so that young people can have the skills to take on the financial responsibilities associated with running a business.

Third, we need to entice Gulf returnees* into agriculture, especially toward vegetable farming. Amazingly, around 900 Nepali youth leave the country every day seeking employment abroad, mostly in Gulf countries or in Malaysia. While most of them are unwilling to talk about the hardships they face while working abroad, there are several predicaments they encounter, among them isolation, draconian sponsorship laws, and debt. For this reason, most returnees are not excited to go home and face the fact that they will have little if any capital to invest.

This is a perfect opportunity for us to inspire these young people to pursue agriculture. They just need some assistance.

I suggest conducting training workshops that provide agricultural and financial tips. First off, we need to help young people understand the scope and importance of agriculture. Secondly, we can point them to specific high-yield crops, such as off-season vegetables that provide a good return on investment.

women farmers plant seeds
Women plant seeds at a workshop on best practices. (Photo by Sulav Paudel)

And what about establishing a specific agricultural training center to create employment opportunities for returnees? We could provide intensive on-farm training for at least a growing season (three months) so that they would have a better understanding of farming operations, technology and economics.

Fourth, farming in Nepal needs a technology boost to attract young people to the sector. Largely driven by elderly people, Nepali agriculture remains rudimentary in character, making it unattractive to young people. Mechanizing agriculture will not only benefit farmers through increased production, but will also generate a greater number of jobs in supporting industries.

Almost every day in Nepal there is an abundance of seminars, meetings, and symposia being held in big five-star hotels on topics relating to food security, food sovereignty, or increasing production. But one thing people are not talking about is who is going to produce all this food. We can no longer afford to ignore this question. Now is the time to invest in our young people.

*Gulf returnees: The many young Nepalese who travel to countries in the Persian Gulf for jobs.

Agriculture in Nepal: How do we inspire a new generation to go into farming?