Is agriculture the answer to the Africa youth unemployment challenge?

Published on 8 January 2016

James Sumberg

Emeritus Fellow

Is agriculture the sector of opportunity for youth in sub-Saharan Africa? That was the question I was asked to address as part of a debate for the Mastercard Young Africa Works Summit in November 2015. Sitting opposite me was Dr. Nteranya Sanginga – Director General International Institute of Tropical Agriculture. He argued for the affirmative. I suggested that we were on the verge of grossly overselling the idea that agriculture can be the sweet spot for employment generation for rural young people in Africa. I presented four reasons to be cautious:

  1. There is a significant gap between, on the one hand, the characteristics of the agricultural sector that a recent book – “Youth Employment in Sub-Saharan Africa” (pdf) – indicates would be required to support high levels of young employment; and on the other hand, the actual characteristics of African smallholder farming today.
  2. The discourse, and much of the programming meant to encourage young people into agriculture, fails to acknowledge the diversity that is evident between rural young people and rural areas.
  3. In the enthusiasm to promote agriculture as a sector of entrepreneurial opportunity for young people, it is not altogether clear that sufficient attention is being given to the qualities of the work and employment that are likely to be on offer.
  4. There is evidence that suggests that the futures that rural young people imagine for themselves are not the same as the vision of futures that are embedded in the policy and programmes that promote youth employment in agriculture.

Debate on the Opportunities and Risks of Investing in Rural and Agricultural Programs

None of this is to suggest that agriculture in Africa does not have a future. Nor is it to deny that that some young people will find fulfilling employment in the agricultural sector. The point is that it is of little benefit to anyone, and least of all to young Africans in rural areas, to allow ourselves to be carried away by the idea that agriculture can provide an immediate or pain-free solution to the challenge of youth employment in Africa.

The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IDS.


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