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Opinion

Are African youth innovative?

Published on 22 May 2019

Image of James Sumberg
James Sumberg

Research Fellow

Stephen Hunt

Research Officer

This is the question that we address in a new article published in the Journal of Rural Studies. Entitled ‘Are African rural youth innovative? Claims, evidence and implications’, the paper is open access and free to download.

Our interest in this question is rooted in the fact that claims about the innovative behaviour of African youth, and their propensity to adopt new technology, have become integral to much policy discourse around youth, agriculture and employment. Because innovation and innovative behaviour are so tightly linked to economic growth, the claim that African youth are innovative – or are particularly innovative – sets the stage for a ‘smart economics’ justification for governments and development organisations investing in them. Simply put, the smart economics argument goes like this: invest in youth because they are innovative and that it is good for economic growth, and specifically it will help deliver the much heralded ‘demographic dividend’.

Claims and arguments like this really matter because they influence resource allocation and choice of development interventions.

The problem is that we could identify no direct or indirect evidence to support the claim that African youth – as a whole – are innovative, or are more innovative than the older generation. Indeed the extensive literature from the North on the relationships between age and innovative behaviour in the work place, or creativity, does not support the proposition that these relations are simple, linear or direct.

These findings do not call into question the urgent need to invest in youth, but they do suggest that alternative framings and justifications for such investment are badly needed. Instead of smart economics, a strong justification could be built around young people’s – indeed everyone’s – right to decent work, and this would open up new perspectives on both policy and intervention.

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