In recent years a number of initiatives have sought to demonstrate that when combined with entrepreneurship, agriculture and the agri-food sector can offer attractive, modern livelihood opportunities to vast numbers of young people in Africa. The International Institute of Tropical Agriculture’s (IITA) Youth Agripreneurs programme is one example that has received considerable attention.
Like other similar programmes, Youth Agripreneurs is explicit in identifying young people’s ‘mind-set’ as the problem, and the programme is upfront about its interest in ‘mind-set change’. IITA’s documentation indicates that the current problematic mind-set, for example, sees agriculture as ‘a way of life’, while the intended change is toward a more ‘entrepreneurial mind-set’ that sees farming as “a business which should be taken seriously’.
But why does my throat tighten each and every time I see the mind-set of young people identified as the problem, and mind-set change offered as the solution?
First, surely it is right that we are very cautious about any analysis that defines the views, perspectives, attitudes and imagined futures of a whole generation – their mind-set – as problematic. This is a clear example of essentialist thinking. The implication is that this mind-set stops young people from spotting opportunities, avoiding traps, experimenting, being adaptive, and making good decisions. It is interesting to note that the idea that young people’s mind-set tightly constrains their actions and responses, sits in tension with another common example of essentialist discourse – that Africa’s young people are highly innovative and creative. Presumably they can’t be both constrained by their mind-set and innovative at the same time.
But perhaps the more important objection to framing the problem as mind-set, and the solution as mind-set change, is that this framing unambiguously places the problem of youth employment in Africa at the feet – or rather in the mind – of the young people themselves. The lack of decent job opportunities that blights the lives of many millions of young people throughout the continent is explained not by global economic relations, structural issues, history, poor policy or corruption, but rather by the young people’s mind-set. And as such, they themselves have the power and responsibility – with a little help from development agencies – to create and open the door that will allow them to leave their current predicament behind.
Is this not a simple but particularly pernicious example of blaming the victim?
A final objection is that the mind-set framing tends toward a clean-cut, closed analysis that leaves little if any room for doubt or alternative explanations, and which requires no supporting research or continuing interrogation.
None of this is to deny that some young people will certainly find or create attractive opportunities in agriculture through entrepreneurship. This is however a far cry from a general solution to the youth employment challenge. And the sooner this is acknowledged the better, as it will force policymakers, planners and development actors to be both more realistic and at the same time more imaginative. Come to think of it, perhaps mind-set change really should be at the top of the agenda.