Growing their own jobs? Agriculture, unemployment and the threat of a ‘lost generation’ of rural Africans

7 November 2012

Unemployment among young people in Africa is increasingly recognised as a first order development challenge. Coming on the heels of sustained investment in education and unprecedented but largely jobless economic growth, the possibility of a ‘lost generation’ of young people, for whom meaningful and rewarding work is little more than a mirage, poses a fundamental challenge to politicians, policy advocates, practitioners and development scholars alike. 

Pamdu, Brong Ahafo, Ghana. Young tomato farmers prepare their harvest for roadside pick up by traders from Accra.
Photographer: Christine Okali.

The 2007 World Development Report addressed Development and the Next Generation, the 2008 report addressed Agriculture for Development and the 2013 report addresses Jobs, but it is the intersection of these three areas that is now very much in the African policy spotlight.

The promise of agriculture?

Given that the majority of Africans live in rural areas, the continuing importance of the agricultural sector to most African economies, and the very slow emergence of employment opportunities in the formal sector, it is not surprising that policy advocates and development practitioners look to agriculture as the source of opportunity for young people.

In many cases the problem is framed narrowly – what can be done to keep young people in farming? Behind this framing are important assumptions: that the young people themselves, their rural communities, the agricultural sector and the nation will benefit if they join the ranks of small-scale agricultural producers. Critically the vision is not that young people return to the farming methods of their parents and grandparents; rather the new emphasis is on value chains, entrepreneurship and ‘farming as a business’.

The theory of change behind current policy approaches is enticingly simple – with training in entrepreneurship and access to financial services, millions of young people throughout rural Africa will be able to create their own jobs in agriculture. In other words, this is a truly bottom-up way to address the unemployment problem.

Unravelling the ‘young people and agriculture problem’

The contributors to the IDS Bulletin that is launched today – Young People and Agriculture in Africa – begin to unravel this story. Perhaps the first point to recognise is that the evidence base on which to build policy and programmes is frighteningly thin. Little is known, for example, about the situations in which particular groups of young people do or do not engage in agriculture. What are the effects of gender, levels of education, household characteristics, proximity to markets, quality of natural resources, land availability, tenure regimes and the like?

Equally, there has been little systematic evaluation of the ‘training and micro-credit’ approach to enterprise development referred to above. Does it work? In what situations and for whom? What about delivery models and follow-up? Without an understanding of the contextualised social and agrarian dynamics, and solid analysis of the impact of different development interventions, it is difficult to be optimistic about the ability of current policies and programmes to deliver meaningful benefits to young people.

What emerges from this collection is thus a clarion call for a much greater research focus on the processes and dynamics of livelihood building among rural young people in Africa. To be policy relevant this research must be theoretically and historically informed, empirically grounded and context sensitive. It must tease apart the highly problematic categories of ‘youth’ and ‘young people’ which are too often used in ways that deny the reality of social difference: the term ‘the youth’ should have no place in either research or policy. Finally, the narrow focus on production agriculture – farming – must be challenged, as there will be new employment opportunities arising throughout the agri-food sector.

Re-setting the stage for effective policy

It is often said that young people represent the future, but the fact is that the decisions made today set the stage for their social, economic and political development. We now have a unique opportunity to re-set that stage, by putting in place the evidence on which more effective policy and programmes can be based. Talk of a ‘lost generation’ of African young people is simply not acceptable.

Jim Sumberg is an IDS Fellow and Co-Editor of the IDS Bulletin 'Young People and Agriculture in Africa'.

Photo: Pamdu, Brong Ahafo, Ghana. Young tomato farmers prepare their harvest for roadside pickup by traders from Accra. Photographer Christine Okali.