The Pivot to Yes: Positive Youth Development and Our Agriculture Program in Liberia

basket of peppers

Positive Youth Development (PYD) is recognized as a paradigm shift for international programs. This approach pivots youth programs fixated on “No”—don’t leave school, don’t have risky sex, don’t join a criminal gang—toward activities that strengthen youth competencies and assets and support positive life choices.

Important components of these affirming youth programs are a strong sense of belonging for youth and supportive relationships with peers and adults in their communities. I am proud to report that Making Cents staff have incorporated these PYD components into the agribusiness training and coaching we developed for the USAID-funded LAUNCH program in Liberia.

Yes to Building Youth Competencies and Assets. Many youth ages 15–30 in rural Bong and Nimba counties targeted by LAUNCH had an interest in agribusiness, but felt daunted by their lack of business skills. To build foundational business competencies, our staff leveraged the massive national interest in soccer, engaging 1,200 youth in hosting matches in their communities. These young men and women worked in small teams on specific tasks, such as identifying players, preparing the venue for the soccer match, and managing ticket sales and concessions.

The groups benefited from ongoing guidance from a coach: a local livelihood specialist, specially trained, who advised on and built competencies on topics such as planning, negotiating, problem solving, and price setting. Within these safe team settings, youth said yes to positive risk-taking and tried out new ways of doing things.

Successfully managing these events motivated the young participants to say yes to other new challenges, deepen their business acumen, and explore business opportunities in local agricultural value chains. Again, in small groups of about 30, they embarked on specific agribusiness trainings, including in managing inventory and different agricultural cycles, keeping accurate agribusiness and farm records, and understanding tradeoffs, such as those relating to enhanced or regular seeds.

Our local staff organized five groups each year: a total of 40, with 20 in each county. Their coaches—one based in Bong and the other in Nimba—helped active groups to put their knowledge into practice and followed up with earlier groups to strengthen competencies and confidence. The groups marketed and sold inputs provided by LAUNCH to local farmers, helped each other to overcome difficulties and setbacks, and shared positive feedback from customers.

Youth groups demonstrating key agribusiness competencies and high levels of attendance received in-kind grants: one of four packages that included a wheelbarrow, an umbrella, a machete, and a start-up inventory of improved, diversified local inputs, such as watermelon, corn, sesame, and ground nut seeds. Sale proceeds provided start-up capital for a variety of microenterprises.

One grantee, Caroline, age 19, from Buanplay village, said LAUNCH “supported me in growing my confidence and my business. I used to have only a small food stand and now I have built a shop where I sell many things including the cassava I grow in my garden.” She is planning another expansion with a loan from her youth savings group and has set her sights on increasing the value of her cassava by milling it into flour.

wheelbarrow and supplies

Yes to Facilitating a Strong Sense of Belonging and Community. The program’s group learning and skill building facilitated a wealth of positive peer relationships, a strong sense of belonging or connectedness, and the promise of a long-term support system.

Youth also built productive relationships within their communities, such as while conducting market research with potential customers and other businesses owners. For example, Washington, age 21, in Loyee village, conferred with experienced farmers before starting his small mobile microenterprise selling hard-to-find local produce. He said that LAUNCH has engaged more people in gardening and farming who use skills like planning and are “making positive changes in the community.”

Making Cents staff has also facilitated connections between youth and community leaders, introducing the latter group to fledgling but ambitious agrobusiness plans that contribute to communities and underlining the importance of recognizing and fostering relationships with motivated and empowered youth.

Yes to Fostering Healthy Relationships and Role Models. Youth relied on supportive adult relationships, helpful peers, and role models. Their most important adult relationships were with their trusted coaches, who provided feedback and strengthened their competence to overcome challenges and normalize setbacks. Coaches encouraged youth to talk to potential customers to identify products they should sell and needs they should fill. Coaches also linked youth to other adults in the community: for example, those with special knowledge about a particular crop or why a specific business failed. They also encouraged youth to identify role models and mentors and ask for their advice and lessons learned.

Yes to Empowering Youth to Reach their Full Potential. Youth like those in the LAUNCH program are aware they have much to offer and are looking for fulfilling opportunities. They are early adopters who want to push boundaries; they aren’t drawn to the kinds of programs familiar to their parents and grandparents. “Not My Grandpa’s Agricultural Program” is the next blog in the series, which addresses some of the assets that youth bring to agriculture programs.

And a Resounding Yes to Engaging Youth in Agriculture Programs. The first blog in this series noted that agriculture is an ideal platform for PYD. The approach promises not only to widen the appeal of agriculture for youth, but also to extend the scope and impact of agriculture programs. Diverse on-farm agricultural cycles and off-farm activities present myriad opportunities to engage young people and build skills, assets, competence, and healthy relationships. Youth as well as agriculture programs need to leverage this, given the projection that less than a third of the 330 million young Africans entering the job market in the next two decades will not be able to find wage jobs, even if the most optimistic projections are realized.

In that vein, and while you wait for the next blog, I encourage you to read and disseminate the first in this series: “Youth and Agriculture Programs: Oil and Water or Oil and Vinegar?” as well as the blog published on our website in December 2015: “Positive Youth Development: Changing the Way We Do Youth Development”.

Join us at the 2016 Global Youth Economic Opportunities Summit which has a focus on “Youth and Agriculture Over the Next Decade”.