Why policy on youth employment in rural Africa needs a rethink

Published on 21 May 2021

Image of Alistair Scott

Alistair Scott

Knowledge Officer

How do young Africans engage with the rural economy? How do they build livelihoods for themselves and what are their aspirations for their own futures?

These questions relate to the broad challenge of how to secure livelihoods and employment in Africa, particularly given the emphasis of the UN Sustainable Development Goals on providing full productive employment and decent work, inclusive education and lifelong learning opportunities for all. But over the last twenty years it is the crisis in youth employment that has become a major focus of attention for both policymakers and the wider public.

New research from IDS is helping to shed light on the answers to these questions and to provide much needed evidence for policy changes that can improve the lives of Africa’s youth and accelerate progress to achieve the SDGs.

Common assumptions that drive policy discourse

Common perception is that young people in rural areas in sub-Saharan African are turning away from agriculture and rural life in favour of lucrative opportunities that they believe await them in the towns and cities. Allied to this is the idea that today’s rural youth have better education and greater expectations than previous generations, and they are more connected to the world than their predecessors. And therefore, so the thinking goes, they have little interest in hard work.

According to this view, if and when young people do migrate to the city, the reality of urban life is often much harsher than they expect. Professional jobs are often scarce and eagerly anticipated educational or social opportunities often fail to materialise. The result is that young rural migrants to the cities find themselves in poorly paid and precarious employment.

Uncovering the realities of how young rural Africans engage with work

To test these ideas, a consortium of researchers led by IDS, undertook a programme of research between 2017 and 2020, on young people’s engagement with the rural economy in sub-Saharan Africa. The study used a mixed methods approach to examine the employment dynamics of young people, their imagined futures, and the resulting policy implications. Analysis of household surveys from seven countries (Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Niger, Nigeria, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia) was combined with qualitative field work in Ethiopia, Uganda, Nigeria and Côte d’Ivoire.

The researchers discovered that rural life is indeed challenging for young people in an environment rife with poverty, parental illness or death, family break-up or civil conflict. Coupled with this, the quality of formal education is often low and many young people are forced to leave school early because it is simply not affordable. The deeply gendered rural opportunity landscapes they encounter offer few prospects for decent work, but through their own efforts and with the support of families and social networks, they attempt to build livelihoods in contexts where infrastructure is poor and services lacking, and gendered social norms and strong social hierarchies present significant constraints, particularly for women.

Typically, poor young people in rural areas rarely ‘choose’ their jobs in any meaningful sense, so while outcomes are not predetermined, most young people in rural sub-Saharan Africa have relatively little room for manoeuvre. Consequently, while some profess a deep attachment to farming, for others it is the obvious (and perhaps only) ‘choice’ that allows them to assure a level of food security, earn some income, and forge a potential path to adulthood.

Imagined future

The futures that young people imagine for themselves usually involve expanding their current activities or diversifying into other areas, but they often include larger-scale, more modern agriculture. In many of these imagined futures young people are farming and running their businesses as managers of hired labour. Few see themselves as full-time farmers.

Many also imagine restarting or furthering their education to boost their employment opportunities. For some, the focus is on finding work in nearby rural towns, with the idea of maintaining a base in the rural economy, while for others the future is imagined as a move to larger urban centres. While some young people in the study imagined prosperous futures for themselves, it remains to be seen how these imagined futures might become reality.

Perhaps the key implication of the research is the urgent need to re-frame the ‘problem’ of Africa’s rural young people. It is not ‘all about youth’ and their perceived lack of interest in hard work or education. What is required is an alternative framing that puts the economy and its inability to provide decent employment centre stage. And mass migration by rural young people must no longer be a core element of policy discourse. True, some young people do migrate to urban areas, but millions of others keep one or both feet in rural areas as they progress through life in pursuit of decent livelihoods.

Policy implications for education and agriculture

Education policy in rural sub-Saharan Africa could definitely be improved. For example, making primary and secondary education accessible to all remains an unfinished project. There is also a clear demand for vocational and technical training, but given the need of many rural young people to combine further training with on-going economic and caring activities, this must be made available in both flexible and part-time modes. The research also supports calls for a root-and-branch interrogation of school curricula with a focus on how young people, and the wider school ecosystem, valorise (or denigrate) particular kinds of work and reproduce particular gender regimes.

The research supports the idea that in one way or another, many rural young people engage in crop or livestock production, and many combine this with other economic activities. Further, both farming and livestock production are important in the futures that many young people imagine for themselves. However, in these futures young people do not identify themselves principally as farmers. Rather, theirs is often an arm’s length, managerial or executive vision, with the manual work being done by hired labour, and farming being one of many economic activities.

The challenge of youth unemployment cannot be overstated. According to IFAD, young people are three times more likely than adults to be unemployed and each year, around 14 million young Africans enter the job market, and the majority of those live in remote communities. So building appropriate policy responses is crucial, particularly in key areas of agricultural policy, such as vocational training, employment, agricultural extension, and technology development and promotion.

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