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A young woman helps a customer at a juice bar in Kenya.

Understanding Rural-Urban Migration of Youth in Kenya

How rural youth migration behaviors can impact the agricultural workforce

Anthony Masika grew up in a small Kenyan farming village. His family worked hard to put him through school and college. When he became a teacher, he wanted to earn a good salary so he could help support his mother and siblings. But that meant leaving home.

“What is hindering me from going back to the village is the same thing that brought me to town—lack of money,” said Masika, who ended up staying with a friend in the larger town of Bungoma and teaching at a private school.

Masika has pursued an education and seen the pros and cons of urban and rural life. Ideally, he says, he will save up some money and eventually return to his close-knit community to start a farming business.

“Given an opportunity, and, God willing, getting the capital, I prefer going back to the village,” Masika said.

Masika’s story illustrates the challenge of providing meaningful employment for young people in Africa, an important focus in the development community. Unemployment rates among youth everywhere are higher than adults. In Kenya, where there are 17.5 million people between the ages of 15 and 34, youth are nearly twice as likely to be unemployed. Anecdotally, Kenyan youth appear to be increasingly rejecting rural agricultural livelihoods and migrating to cities, even though they still may not find the work opportunities they seek.

At the same time, this increase in rural-to-urban migration has raised concerns about rural youth abandoning agriculture, all while food needs continue to rise and current farmers age. The food and agriculture sector is still the largest employer of young people, but increasing rural-urban migration rates and concerns that youth prefer non-agricultural employment have prompted the development community to explore solutions for harnessing the potential of youth to revitalize rural agricultural economies.

To shed some light on the situation, in 2017 RTI conducted a mixed-methods study, interviewing 3,000 youth migrants, 1,350 of them from predominantly agricultural areas in Western Kenya. The study explored migration patterns, the number and profile of migrants planning to return to their villages and implications for the agricultural workforce. We paired focus group discussions and key informant interviews with a survey using respondent-driven sampling, a method of chain referral sampling created to study hard-to-reach populations.

Youth Migration Decisions and Returning to the Village

The study found that the primary factors driving youth away from rural areas were education and job opportunities in larger towns and cities. It also showed that lack of access to land was not a primary factor for most youth, contrary to current thinking. We saw high variability in migration patterns; most respondents had migrated more than once and followed different paths, with many returning to their home county following a stint in Nairobi.

Our survey results show that many youth who migrate from predominantly agricultural areas have plans to return to their home villages and are in fact interested in pursuing agriculture as an income-generating opportunity. This challenges the commonly held assumption that youth are abandoning agriculture and rural life. Interestingly, our survey results also differed from the findings of our focus group discussions, which echoed the literature—participants described agriculture as “dirty work,” for “old people” and “an old way of investing.” This underscores the importance of using mixed methods that include sufficient sample size to draw conclusions, as most of the existing literature relied on qualitative methods or small samples.

When asked where they would like to move in the next 12 months, 41 percent of males currently in Nairobi indicated they would move back to their village of origin. Similarly, 76 percent of males in Nairobi responded that they would like to permanently return to their villages in the future. Females were less likely than males to want to return to the village.  

We asked respondents about their level of interest in the most common activity for young adults in their village, to test the common notion that youth migrants are not interested in agriculture. Surprisingly, among respondents who stated that the most common activity for youth in their village is crop farming, 77 percent responded that they are “very interested” in that work.

Migration is Fluid, and Should be Accommodated, Rather than Stifled, by Development Programs

Overall, this research indicates that youth migration should be seen as fluid rather than static. While many youth continue to move from city to city, youth also return to home counties and home villages. It would behoove policy makers, service providers, job providers and development practitioners to employ methods of engaging youth that similarly recognize the mobility of this set of individuals.

What might this look like? Training institutes could offer courses that could be started in one location and finished in another. Family planning and life skills providers could employ a more targeted case management approach using a central database; technology innovations make this feasible even in rural areas. Employers may consider casting a wider net while searching for young employees. Given that many youth took six months to find a job and changed jobs multiple times, they could benefit from learning basic skills related to moving, keeping a job, attaining new job skills or saving money. 

Finally, development practitioners should recognize that geographic intervention sites could be broader than geographically focused outcomes. For example, an activity focused on growth of the agricultural sector in Bungoma county may consider recruiting Bungoma migrants in Nairobi. There might be more careful consideration of remittances between Bungoma migrants and their families back home, targeting migrants as the purchasers of new types of seed or fertilizers that they can bring back home to their family members.  

Youth migration is inevitable for a subset of the youth population in rural areas in these counties in Kenya; therefore, it should not be viewed in a negative lens. The research indicates that young adults are part of complex household and community resilience mechanisms. However, they lack the foundational and ongoing support to succeed in achieving what they visualize for themselves. This should be an area of interest for both policy makers and development implementers.