Digging below the surface of Africa’s youth in agriculture agenda
By “making farming sexy”, it’s believed African governments can create jobs at scale, boost agricultural productivity, and spur rural growth. For several reasons, these expectations may be unrealistic.
Africa’s rapid urbanisation, shifting consumer diets, and climate breakdown are raising concerns about the future of food security on the continent. As urban residents are net food buyers, policymakers are keen to increase the volume of agricultural production — through both productivity improvements and by convincing young people to practice farming as a profession.
Accounts of humble heros and savvy entrepreneurs leaving urban trappings to feed rural communities are intensely celebrated — in the media, by international donors, governments, and philanthropists. Initiatives that aim to make agriculture more attractive to young people receive accolades and garner significant funding.
“The future of Africa’s youth lies in agriculture…I fully expect the future millionaires and billionaires of Africa to come from agriculture” — Akinwumi Adesina, Recipient of the 2017 World Food Prize and President of the African Development Bank.
Underlying this enthusiasm rests an uncontested belief: by “making farming sexy”, African governments will:
# Create much needed jobs for young people;
# Boost agricultural productivity;
# Spur rural growth and slow the exodus to cities.
It’s a compelling argument but one that becomes shaky once we consider the realities of smallholder farming in Africa, and its place within the global food system.
(1) Let’s Talk about Jobs. Everyday 30,000 young Africans enter the job market. 18,000 (60%) are destined for unemployment (UNDP, 2017). Directing such massess of potentially unemployed people into agriculture is championed as a “win-win” solution: less joblessness, more.
There are two main avenues for job creation in agriculture: off-farm work (processing & trade) and on-farm work (production). The first requires entrepreneurship and a strong enabling environment — decent infrastructure, access to finance, land, training, technology etc. Many donor and government-led initiatives focus their efforts here; often through projects that create opportunities for young people to integrate themselves into agricultural value chains. The potential for creating jobs at scale through this avenue however is limited. Processing activities improve the productivity of agricultural labour. This means fewer people are needed to to produce the same quantity. A 2016 study on 9 African countries by Michigan State University and the Mastercard Foundation found only “moderate potential for agro-processing or other stages of the food system to absorb youth into gainful employment.” It goes on to say that although employment in agro-processing is growing, its share of overall employment is quite low and “will not generate nearly as many new jobs as on-farm production.”
The largest employment opportunities are in fact tied to on-farm work: contract farming and high-value horticulture for example. This type of work is physically demanding and often associated with chronic uncertainty and relatively low financial returns. In many countries, the problem is amplified by the export-oriented nature of commercial agriculture. Workers and small-scale producers struggle to ensure fair compensation from players higher up in the value chain and power dynamics are often play out in the favour of buyers. As outlined by a 2018 study conducted by Oxfam and more recently by IPES, supply chain exploitation and poor labour standards remain prevalent across the world and are important deterrents to the growth of on-farm labour participation.
(2) What about Productivity? Ageing farm populations struggling to physically tend to their fields coupled with stubbornly low levels of agricultural productivity are other arguments for boosting the role of youth in agriculture. Often accompanying this reasoning is a claim that youth are innovative, dynamic and enterprising. However, even if this claim were true (recent evidence suggests it isn’t), productivity will be constrained by the poor quality of soils now widespread across Africa. Re-building them is a long-term, knowledge intensive activity that few possess. Without this basic input, keeping young people in farming is bound to be difficult. Training programmes focus on building knowledge but rarely provide the financial support required to work on soil improvement and regeneration.
Technology and mechanisation can drastically reduce the physical demands of farming. However, farm plot sizes are falling in most African countries and even small tractors are only economical for farms of 10 or more hectares. Whilst solutions such as low-cost machinery and communal leasing are emerging, they are unlikely to succeed if driven purely by the private sector. Public support is needed to ensure these solutions can be scaled to remote rural areas in the absence of business incentives. Until then, small plot sizes and poor rural infrastructure will continue to limit the potential of mechanisation.
A recent publication based on interviews with nearly 600 young South Africans reached similar conclusions: it found that for more than half of those surveyed, lack of interest in agriculture was due to the fact that it was either back-breaking and financially unappealing — at the subsistence level — or they were in large agri-businesses where workers are often treated appallingly.
(3) Rural Growth. Keeping young people in rural areas where most agricultural activity takes place relieves pressure on urban centres and has the potential to narrow geographic disparities. Youth-driven agriculture is optimistically associated with rural transformation but this tends to be a chicken-and-egg problem: young people want exciting lives — amenities, connectedness, and energy. But businesses providing these services can’t take off unless there’s sufficient demand. The challenge is not so much adoption of farming but making people feel like they belong, creating pride in the farming profession, and altering the perception that rural equals poor.
So what does this mean?
These challenges point to a wide gulf between reality and rhethoric when it comes to the youth in African agriculture agenda. What is needed is for policymakers to confront the notion that off-farm work is nothing more than entrepreneurship, and that decent opportunities for on-farm work coupled with massive improvements in rural infrastructure and basic services are essential. As it stands, there aren’t enough farmers who fill the space between subsistence agriculture and large-scale agri-businesses. This “missing middle” leaves young people feeling trapped — having to choose between a rock and a hard place.
Promoting the growth and viability of family farming, investing in the development of local food systems, and emphasising the social purpose of farming are key pathways through which young people might be better encouraged to choose agriculture as a way of life. This is why holistic approaches to managing food and agricultural systems such as agroecology which embraces the social aspects of farming can be a powerful tool for improving the allure of agriculture.