The youngest generation is now the largest generation on earth, but the average age of coffee farmers continues to increase.
JOANNA FURGIUELE asks: Do we really understand why young people are leaving coffee, or are we making damaging assumptions that keep us from finding real solutions?
In Latin America, 20 percent of the region’s total population is between 15 and 24, the largest proportion of young people ever in the region’s history.  Across Africa, there are currently 420 million youth between the ages of 15 and 35 – and the number is set to double by 2045.  Despite this, the average age of a coffee farmer is above 50 years of age. 
There is an alarming gap growing between aging coffee farmers and the up-and-coming generation. These youth are not only potential coffee farmers, they are also the next generation of rural community leaders. Globalization has brought many new opportunities: Both information and people can move more freely than ever before. That’s a net-positive for everyone involved, but it means that growing coffee may no longer be one of the best jobs available.
We are also clearly in the midst of both a price crisis and climate crisis that greatly impacts the outlook and opportunities in coffee production. In a time of crisis, it is natural to draw premature conclusions. The industry is asking, “Why are young people leaving coffee?”, and the historically low price is among the most frequent of explanations.
“Why are young people leaving coffee?”
What if we ask instead: “How can we professionalize coffee, across the industry, so it is worthy of the talent and aspirations of youth in coffee producing communities?”
From my experience working with youth for over seven years, this question is framed incorrectly and leads to overly simplified answers to an incredibly complex situation. What if we ask instead: “How can we professionalize coffee, across the industry, so it is worthy of the talent and aspirations of youth in coffee producing communities?”
If we want youth to choose coffee, we need to move beyond superficial answers. Here, I’ve highlighted some of the most common answers to the question, “Why are young people leaving coffee?” and followed each theme with further background and depth for you to consider.
“The price of coffee and volatility in the market is pushing youth out of coffee.”
Economic viability is essential for coffee production to be a legitimate career path: there won’t be a future workforce in coffee production if it’s not possible to generate a living income and experience economic stability.
However, economics is not the only factor influencing youth, for two broad reasons. First, a higher price of coffee does not necessarily mean more money distributed to young women and men. If resources are not distributed proportionally among family members, then an increase in the price of coffee will not increase the funds accessible to young adults. Often youth are responsible for working and contributing to the family farm, yet neither have a say in decisions nor receive wages for their labor.
Members of the Coffee Kids youth group in La Celia, Risaralda, Colombia gather for an inter-generational exchange to reflect on their personal growth and skills gained, plus continued commitment to each other. From left to right: the author, Cristian Ramírez, Heidy Moreno, Estefany Bueno, Marilin Ramírez, Karen Bueno, Camilo Meza, Sandra Garcia, Stefanie Betancourth, Brahian Valencia, Brenda Zapata, and Juliana Zapata. Photo by Juan Esteban Londoño Acevedo for Coffee Kids.
Second, even if economic gain is shared among the whole family, money does not necessarily equal purpose. Coffee needs to be a compelling and inspiring way of life; youth must be connected into the whole supply chain. If a young person does not feel valued, price alone may not be enough for them to choose coffee as their livelihood. The coffee industry needs to recognize that the current price crisis is a result of historical imbalances of trade and power; it is a deeply rooted structural challenge, and it cannot be fixed solely through an economic lens. Social and environmental factors matter and must be addressed in parallel to create a more inclusive system.
“Migration out of a rural coffee community is the first choice for any young adult.”
Yes, some youth want to leave their community to pursue a university degree or to find an alternative career path; however, this is not the case for all young women and men. Given the right opportunity there are many young adults who would choose to live where they grew up. They appreciate living close to family, working outside, and building their own enterprise. Migration can be very difficult, isolating, and downright dangerous. Good work can be hard to find even in a city; being far away from family can be traumatic.
The specialty coffee community is made up of many folks who work in, or who have started, businesses in their local community, so the deep connection to place that many of these youth have to their home ought to be relatable. There is great potential for this sense of place to be a motivating force to engage youth in coffee.
Young adults are dynamic, therefore multiple pathways are needed for their personal and professional growth. Knowledge and experience exchanges are essential for young women and men to understand the key position they hold within the industry. They need exposure to the entire value chain to understand how their work on the farm impacts the final product. Demonstrating the connection between university or vocational degrees back to success in their rural community is also key for youth to infuse these communities with new knowledge and perspectives.
“Young people are unwilling and unmotivated to attend training available for farmers.”
The average age of farmers is increasing, yet a large percentage of training and new methodology does not reach farmers under the age of 30.  Young farmers require instruction at their developmental and skill level, which is distinct from technical assistance for a farmer with years of experience. The methodology is equally important to the content: it should be experiential, intensive over a short period, innovative and technology-oriented, and cultivating individual as well as collaborative capacity.
An essential element for youth-specific training is the incorporation of life skills. A holistic approach developing self-confidence, self-expression, and critical and creative thinking is paramount to the successful application of agronomy and business techniques.
The Mareu Youth Group in the Arumeru district of Tanzania’s Arush region brainstorming reasons why Internal Savings would benefit their producer organization. Photo by Andrew Marinkovich for Hanns R. Neumann Siftung
Another factor to consider is that young adults typically do not have savings, capital, or assets. This is a barrier to investing in coffee, a crop with a long lifecycle and slow returns. Growing food crops, raising animals, or other short-term investments are often a better entry point to engage youth in agriculture and teach practical business skills. This enables youth to diversify their income, minimize risk, and generate funds to invest in coffee over the long-term.
“Farming is not attractive in a high-tech world.”
There is a persistent perception that young people will only be interested in a career path that is high-tech. But technological innovation does not need to look like Silicon Valley – it simply means access to new tools and techniques. Coffee production must be modernized and professionalized. Technological advances may also equate to access to basic resources. Electricity, internet, reliable transportation, and other improvements to infrastructure also have a significant impact on the appeal to youth.
I am sure that if youth can see the farm as enterprise, and see themselves as entrepreneurs, then innovation will come more readily. This is vital in the face of changing climate where we need farmers who are willing to implement new techniques and practices that break generations of tradition in farming.
In the end, coffee farming must be a dignified livelihood and that will only be true if we view coffee farmers of all ages as entrepreneurs, business associates, and industry pioneers.
“There are not enough youth initiatives, but the industry is investing sufficiently to address this problem.”
There is growing sector-wide recognition of this challenge of an aging farmer population and it is being highlighted more frequently. But the industry is nowhere close to proactively addressing the issue.
For a long time, sustainability in coffee equated to improved productivity. The industry pushed consumers to focus on provenance, quality scores, certifications, and ambiguous “direct trade” labeling. These initiatives still lead farming families into a price crisis, and it only focuses on the existing supply chain. This excludes farmers trying to enter the system, including up-and-coming young farmers. I believe we need equivalent financing for sustainability initiatives both within and outside of existing supplier networks.
Most programs specifically for youth, which tend to be more time- and resource-intensive, are not addressing the complexity of the situation – they demand larger investments to do so. A commitment to a holistic approach with robust monitoring and evaluation would greatly improve our impact.
To do this well, it is crucial for companies to partner with nonprofits and community organizations who have the appropriate capability. The social and environmental challenges we face require collaboration to leverage investment and expertise.
Reframing the Question to Find Human-centered Solutions
As an industry, it is important to always dig deep into our most pressing challenges and not make assumptions about root causes without consulting those who are affected. At a very basic level, it is an important reminder that we are discussing individuals: Each young person has a specific set of needs, desires, interests, and opportunities; it does not behoove us – or them – to oversimplify the situation. We should not forget two very human aspects within this conversation.
First and foremost, people need to know that they have value. Not economic value, but rather intrinsic value based on their unique characteristics and set of experiences. To be at our best, we all need to know that others will recognize, support, and cultivate that value. For youth, this is giving them visibility, space to share their perspectives, and a chance to take on responsibility.
Second, people need to believe that they can make a difference in the world and affect change. We strive to exert an influence on the world and to be part of something larger than ourselves. We all search for some type of purpose. As a global coffee community, we must help our youngest members build lasting connections, develop networks, and embrace their crucial role in our industry by offering opportunities for growth and professional development.
While there are many compounding challenges to address, youth deserve our attention, focus, and engagement. If we reach out to invite youth into these discussions, integrate their creativity and innovative power, we can work towards the many solutions we need jointly. Together we have the capacity to sustain rural coffee communities and the coffee industry – this industry that we all love.
JOANNA FURGIUELE is the Director of Partnerships and Strategic Initiatives for Hanns R. Neumann Stiftung and has been managing the Coffee Kids program for the past three years. Joanna earned an MBA from UNC Kenan- Flagler Business School and a Masters in Environmental Management from Duke University. She was also the first-ever Re:co Symposium Randy Wirth Memorial Fellow.
Like to learn more? Joanna has put together a list of additional reading:
A 2018 report on the landscape of current programs and practices supporting young adults in coffee growing communities across Latin America. The focus of this study is on initiatives in Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua, especially those with direct links with the private sector and international coffee industry.
Coffee Kids Impact Reports, a program of HRNS:
Reflection from Michael Opitz that the as an industry, “we are falling short in developing convincing support to improve farmer family livelihoods and addressing, in particular, the perspectives for young people.”
A HRNS project in Huehuetenango, Guatemala to engage youth in specialty coffee as a window for opportunity in rural areas.
 2012 African Economic Outlook and “Youth and Employment in Africa: The Potential, the Problem, the Promise.” http://siteresources.worldbank.org/INTAFRICA/Resources/ADI_Youth_Employment_summary.pdf
 This is an average of averages across multiple coffee producing countries: Colombia (56, as listed by The Giving Compass’ “The Hardships of Coffee Farming”), Honduras (46, as listed by Feed the Future’s Climate-smart coffee in Honduras), Uganda (60, as listed by the International Coffee Organization’s 2015 Sustainability of the Coffee Sector in Africa), Kenya (57, as listed by “Influence of Gender, Age, Marital Status and Farm Size on Coffee Production: A Case Study of Kisii County, Kenya,” published by the Asian Journal of Agricultural Extension, Economics & Sociology), and the continent of Africa (60, The Giving Compass’ “The Hardships of Coffee Farming”).
 Michael Opitz, Managing Director, Hanns R. Neumann Stiftung https://www.hrnstiftung.org/the-coffee-sector-isprogramming-with-grandpa-and-gambles-with-its-future/