Are rural youth job prospects in Africa a mirage?
Many recent accounts tend to dismiss productive employment of youth in rural areas in Africa as a mirage largely because they exhibit strong resistance to eking out a bare subsistence in dismal working and living conditions. On recent evidence of agricultural transformation, this view is overly pessimistic, if not largely mistaken.
The 15–24-year-old age group represents 20 per cent of subSaharan Africa’s population today and, unlike in other regions, its share will remain high and stable (19 per cent in 2050). In absolute terms, subSaharan Africa’s youth will grow from nearly 200 million in 2015 to nearly 400 million in 2050, and its share in the labour force will remain the highest in the world, even if following a declining trend.
Agriculture has a substantial role in meeting the youth employment challenge facing Africa. Even in a most optimistic scenario, non-farm and urban sectors are not likely to absorb more than two-thirds of young labour market entrants over the next decade. But there will be vast opportunities for innovative young people in agricultural systems as they adapt to a range of challenges in the near future. These challenges relate to raising productivity in a sustainable way, integration into emerging high value chains, and healthy diets.
While the challenges are daunting, the potential benefits of addressing them are enormous. Higher prices, more integrated value chains, widening connectivity to markets in some areas, and greater private and public engagement in the sector are creating new opportunities. A major barrier is, however, strong negative preferences/attitudes of the youth towards agriculture.
A survey of rural in- and out-of school young people towards agriculture, based on field-work in two regions in Ethiopia, is remarkably rich and insightful (IDS Bulletin Volume 43 Number 6, 2012). Life as a farmer was tied to life in a village which most respondents saw as hard and demanding. Participants in both regions concurred that agriculture has changed significantly over the last decade. The introduction and adoption of agricultural inputs such as improved seeds, fertilisers and better farming methods (such as slash ploughing, sowing seeds in rows, water pumps, modern beehives) have produced significant increases in productivity and earnings.
There were competing narratives on whether agriculture was becoming more desirable to young people as a result. Participants felt that these developments were making agriculture more and more profitable and therefore more appealing. But they felt that there was a huge obstacle in engaging in it – scarcity of land.
Although the dominant view was that young people are disinterested in agriculture, some participants pointed out that this was not always the case.
Although the government considers rural educated youth as instrumental in bringing about a transformation in agricultural skills, knowledge and productivity, it has not effectively addressed either the attitude of many young people towards agriculture or the obstacles preventing their entry into the sector.
To create opportunities commensurate with the number of young people who will need employment, constraints on the acquisition of capital, land, and skills must be removed or relaxed.