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The Agricultural Route to African Jobs

By Eugenie Maïga

At more than 20 percent, youth unemployment in sub-Saharan Africa is high, and with 10 million young Africans entering the labor market each year it is only going to worsen. In addition, the youth bulge—65 percent of the total population of Africa is under the age of 35—is expected to last, with over 35 percent of Africa’s population projected to be between the ages of 15 and 35 by 2020.

The pace at which new entrants arrive on the job market far outstrips the pace at which African economies are creating jobs. Yet, the clearing of our labor markets is crucial (equality between supply of jobs and demand for jobs), not only for economic reasons, but also for the stability of our countries. The Arab Spring and the recent popular uprising in Burkina Faso are proof of the urgency of dealing with youth unemployment.

An explanation for the mismatch between the supply of jobs and the demand for jobs is that skills development policy is not aligned with economic reality in African countries. Young people are being trained in fields where they cannot find jobs after graduation (e.g. social sciences account for 20 to 60 percent of enrollment in tertiary education across 15 African countries). 

One avenue for job creation oriented to the reality of African economies is agriculture. Several reasons suggest that agriculture is the way to go. First, Africa has the largest share uncultivated of arable in the world (about 60 percent according to McKinsey). Subsequently, more land be used to employ more Africans. Next, recurrent food price crises indicate the urgent need to boost agricultural productivity so countries’ buffer stocks can be appropriately supplied and used to help mitigate spikes in food prices, thereby preventing food riots.  

Another reason for Africa to bet on agriculture is that the agriculture sector wages are rising in Asia, implying the need for mechanization, which is costly to achieve especially on small farms. Given that Asia is a large exporter of agricultural commodities, such as rice, inability to mechanize on small farms can adversely impact the global food supply. This suggests that an opportunity exist for Africa to step in to capture market share on the world market as well as to secure food for its own population.

My vision for the new generation of African farmers is well-trained, highly productive farmers supplying quality agricultural products to both domestic and international markets in such quantities as to allow them to live a middle-class lifestyle. This can become reality if the right steps are taken. There is no way around the issue: young people need to be trained to become efficient farmers. Africa needs to promote Centers of Excellence where young people will be taught to become farmers and businessman, while leveraging on regional integration. 

One example of such a center is the Songhaï Center near Porto-Novo. Started in 1985 as a center for training, production, research, and development in sustainable agriculture, it relies on an integrated production system that creates an alliance between man, the environment, and technology. Three more centers were later established as training and production sites in three agro-ecological zones of Benin, and since 2002 the model has spread throughout the region—9 centers in Nigeria and 1 each in Liberia and Sierra Leone.  The Songhaï Centers in Benin have trained more than 1500 youths who are now successful farmers, sharing their knowledge within the communities where they operate. This knowledge sharing is important in creating a critical mass of highly productive young famers. Since 2008 the Songhaï Center has been promoted as a Center of Excellence in Agricultural training by the United Nations and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) is supporting planned replication in 15 African countries.

After graduation from such centers, trainees need to be granted access to land. One of the major issues in African agriculture is land tenure insecurity. Land is “available” but uncultivated because of ill-defined land laws, which hinder purchase of, and investment in, land. Without access to land, the trained (and interested untrained) youth will have no choice but to look for livelihood elsewhere. Bezu and Holden  looked at preferred livelihood options for youth in Ethiopia and found that only 9 percent of the rural youth in Ethiopia plan to work in agriculture. The main reason—an inability to access land.

Modern faming requires many inputs—improved seeds, fertilizers, pesticides, and mechanization—which imply that support for access to credit should be provided to the trained youth. Given the highly risky nature of agricultural activities, policy makers should partner with banks through means such as guarantee funds to enable banks to loan at reasonable rates to farmers. Well-trained young farmers with access to land and quality inputs can then contribute to boosting agricultural production in African countries.

Markets are crucial for income generation for farmers. One way of linking young farmers to markets is to leverage domestic opportunities. For instance, in countries where school lunch is provided, policy makers can mandate that school canteens source all or part of their produce needs from local farmers on contract basis, individually or in groups. Given the large number of schools in African countries, this would ensure a sizeable market for domestic farmers. Regional market information services can also be provided for exploring exports markets in the region, thus minimizing the amount of export infrastructure required.

Sustainability in the agricultural sector in Africa can be brought about by encouraging youth to engage in agriculture. Indeed, innovation is a potent means to increase agricultural production and value added. Innovations in agriculture can be fostered by increased youth involvement, given that youth are both tuned to technology and achieving higher levels of educational attainment than previous generations. As Reimers and Klasen  put it, educated farmers are more inclined to adopt new technologies and distinguish between promising and non-promising innovations. 

Curbing youth unemployment in Africa is of the utmost urgency given the potential impact on political stability. The low hanging fruit to pick is agriculture, and making the most of the opportunities it offers require clear and strong political vision, will, and commitment.

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Eugenie Maïga is an Assistant Professor of Economics at the Université de Koudougou in Burkina Faso.

[Photo courtesy of Christopher Griner]

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