Recognizing that rural youth, especially informal and migrant workers, risked being heavily affected by the crisis, FAO has since the outbreak of the pandemic strongly advocated for youth-inclusive responses while adapting its youth employment programmes to the new scenario. This translated into stronger uptake of virtual modalities for capacity development, technical assistance and policy dialogues, on-demand emergency support (agricultural inputs, processing or storing equipment), distribution of protective equipment and occupational safety guidance to young employers, workers and migrants.
FAO’s Integrated Country Approach for boosting decent jobs for youth in agri-food systems (ICA) actively engaged in COVID-19 response soon after the outbreak and is supporting interventions to empower young farmers and agripreneurs in the recovery phase.This blog shares some insights from our experience in Uganda.
1. The pandemic exacerbated existing vulnerabilities of young people
The economic down-turn caused by COVID-19 hit an already fragile segment of Uganda’s workforce: the youth. This is because 95% of the youth population (18-30 years old) have informal jobs, with more than half of them in agriculture and related sectors, like agro-processing and trading. Over 30% are employed in subsistence agriculture.
With limited access to safety nets and financial relief packages, young agripreneurs and informal workers were confronted by significant disruptions in agricultural value chains, due to the measures taken to limit the spread of COVID-19. The situation however, only amplified challenges that Ugandan youth already faced in agri-food systems, notably limited access to productive assets, markets, advisory and financial services. Acknowledging that COVID-19 worsened existing vulnerabilities is important to build back better and pave the way for long-term structural changes.
2. Listen to what youth have to say: they are part of the solution
As a first step, we engaged in dialogue with youth networks that regularly collaborate with the ICA programme in the country. Through the Young Farmers’ Federation of Uganda (UNYFA) and the Young Farmers Champions Network (YOFCHAN), along with other youth-serving organizations such as Africa Agribusiness Academy and CURAD incubator, we were able to hear from young farmers and agripreneurs about how they were coping with COVID-19.
We learned that rural youth were dealing with considerable economic, physical and psychological stress. Restricted access to their farming land or work sites, agricultural inputs and market outlets caused substantial income loss and higher business costs. Several micro and small-sized agribusinesses run by or employing young people were forced to close or downscale their operations.
"With the coming of COVID-19, as Young Farmers Champions Network, we found it hard to do business as usual. Due to lockdown, we had no access to our office, couldn't reach out to the young farmers we serve and this affected our projects. We resorted to working virtually but had limited skills and tools to operate effectively." (Tumwebaze Khamutima, CEO, Young Farmers Champions Network)
On the other hand, young agripreneurs in Uganda and across the region have demonstrated the ability to adapt their business models and lead the uptake of innovative solutions such as alternative animal feed, locally grown inputs or fertilizers and, remarkably, the move to online marketing and sales; a pool of change-makers to invest on for the future of agri-food systems.
3. Give youth decision-making power
Based on this initial assessment, the ICA programme activated – through weekly online meetings – the Technical Working Group responsible for implementing Uganda’s National Strategy for Youth Employment in Agriculture (NSYEA). Since July 2020, this multi-stakeholder group has organized national policy dialogues to provide recommendations on COVID-19 responses for youth in agriculture. These high-level events have seen the active participation of both institutional and non-state actors, alongside youth representatives.
“As a Technical Working Group coordinated by FAO, stakeholders and youth were able to share their views on the challenges and opportunities brought about by the lockdown […] Based on these engagements, as Africa Agribusiness Academy, we embarked on the process of integrating an online shop on our website, that is up and running, and changed the Twende 2020 [international agribusiness forum, ed.] to a four-day online event. The participants appreciated the wealth of knowledge that was shared.”(Lawrence Sengendo, Programs Manager, Africa Agribusiness Academy)
Giving youth the opportunity to voice their concerns and influence decision-making is vital to ultimately meet their specific and diverse needs, and to design inclusive and timely responses to the pandemic. It also helps to gather commitment, spur concrete action and keep stakeholders accountable.
4. Catalyse multi-actor responses
As an immediate follow-up to the policy dialogues, a mask campaign was launched to minimize the spread of the disease while sensitizing people on the importance of protecting rural workers. Complementing governmental efforts of distributing free masks to communities, the ICA programme purchased and distributed 3000 masks in selected districts, raising awareness and confidence of young farmers and employers that they can keep safe and continue working amidst the pandemic.
The partnership with Ministries of Agriculture, Health and Labour (specifically the Occupational Safety and Health department) led to the development of standard operating procedures (SOP) for the prevention and control of COVID-19 and other infectious diseases in the agricultural sector. The SOP will guide youth employers and employees, as well as other agricultural actors, on the basic requirements to ensure safety and health at the workplace.
In parallel, ICA efforts to enhance youth access to finance have focused on raising young agripreneurs’ awareness of available public and private funding opportunities that can help restart or uplift their businesses, while facilitating business meetings with financial institutions. Agriculture youth champions have been supported to develop business plans and proposals for resource mobilization and so far, three have received grants up to USD 40,000 each, through FAO’s collaboration with UNDP Youth4Business Facility.
Close coordination with public and private stakeholders is an effective strategy to integrate and scale up COVID-19 responses as we work to leverage the crisis as an opportunity to accelerate transition to a more sustainable and youthful agricultural sector in .
In sum, establishing effective and safe partnerships with young people and their organizations, during and after the COVID-19 crisis, is a win-win solution to ensure that recovery measures are responsive to their needs and tap into their potential to lead sustained change.
Read the year-end ICA update on COVID-19 here
 FAO, 2019. Rural youth employment and agri-food systems in Uganda. A rapid context analysis
 FAO, 2020. Africa’s youth in agrifood systems: Innovation in the context of COVID-19
This article is part of the Decent Jobs for Youth Blog Series: Youth Rights & Voices. The Blog Series highlights the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on young women and men in the world of work and discusses action-oriented policy responses and solutions. If you would like to comment or contribute, please contact email@example.com.