Surprising Challenges To Our Assumptions About Agriculture

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After growing up in two of Kenya’s biggest cities, Kisumu and Nairobi, JP Murunga graduated with a degree in statistics from Kenya’s leading university – The University of Nairobi. This then led him to the top of Kenya’s survey research field, working for major multi-national research and consulting firms Nielsen and Ipsos.
JP now serves as GeoPoll’s Client Services Manager for commercial sector clients. He regularly manages survey projects for billion-dollar companies like Coca Cola and Barclays and presents in front of major clients like the Procter & Gamble. JP is excelling in his professional field, with full-time employment, a steady paycheck, and job security.
JP is also a Small-scale Farmer
Instead of kicking back in Nairobi, JP spends harvest season weekends on his family farm in western Kenya. The Murunga family harvests their crops themselves, alongside a handful of casual workers. Although the farm is fairly small now, it is doing so well that JP wants to buy more land to expand the farm.
JP may not seem like a typical small-scale farmer in Kenya, but what if his story is more representative than we might think? To answer this question, GeoPoll examined macro-level data collected via mobile phone surveys.
Urban to Rural Population Shifts
There is a general assumption that a massive population shift from villages to cities is rapidly taking place within sub-Saharan Africa, as rural youth move to urban areas in search of higher paying formal employment.
Yet according to research conducted by GeoPoll, the data shows that shifts in urban and rural populations may be much more fluid. In a monthly SMS survey of 25,000 people across 27 countries, data indicates a marked shift in rural versus urban populations in just one month.
From December 2017 to January 2018, 53% of respondents self-identify as living in an urban area and 47% respondents self-identify as living in a rural area. These percentages reversed the following month and then held steady.
A second SMS survey of rural youth in 20+ African countries showed that almost 50% of respondents reported regularly moving between a village and the city. These two survey results – combined with the anecdote about JP’s regular travel between Nairobi and his farm – pose some interesting questions for additional research.

  • Are ordinary people moving back and forth between urban and rural areas multiple times each year?
  • How closely do these movements correlate with the harvest season of specific crops?
  • And if this pattern holds across other data sources, what are the policy implications of major internal population shifts every single year?

Farming as an Occupation
There is a second general assumption that a high proportion of income generating activities in rural areas of sub-Saharan Africa are related to agriculture.
GeoPoll conducted a survey of rural youth in 20 African countries, and the data showed that less than 20% of respondents identify farming as their primary occupation. On its face, this survey finding seems to imply that young people are farming at lower rates than their parents, perhaps because their participation in off-farm activities is growing.
However, it is also possible that their rate of participation in agriculture may not be declining – perhaps young people in rural areas do not view agriculture as an occupation or a job, but as something that they do in addition to school or other employment? Only further research will tell.
By Inta Plostins of GeoPoll
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