Making Agriculture Cool Again for Youth in Africa

October 31, 2017
Farm AfricaA 23-year old farmer harvesting snow peas in Leltangat Village, Kenya

How can we engage African youth in agriculture? Feed the Future invests in research to help governments anticipate and respond to the mega-trends influencing their countries and people. Drawing on the expertise of universities in the U.S. and abroad, Feed the Future is finding ways to engage youth in agriculture to tackle challenges like unemployment and tap into young people’s energy and creativity. The agriculture sector has huge potential to drive growth, but investments are needed to make it attractive for young people.

To find out how youth and agriculture need each other, we interviewed Thomas Jayne, University Foundation Professor for International Development, and Felix Kwame Yeboah, Assistant Professor for International Development, both at Michigan State University. Michigan State University leads the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Food Policy.

Young Africans between 15 and 35 years of age currently account for 55 percent of the continent's labor force. What does this mean for youth employment?

The world will experience unprecedented demographic shifts during the 21st century. The share of the world’s population living in sub-Saharan Africa will rise from 12 percent in 2015 to 36 percent in 2100, and the continent will exert growing impact on the world economy, including the global food system. Young Africans will largely determine this impact.

Young people between 15-24 years of age constitute between 35 and 40 percent of the workforce in most sub-Saharan African countries. An additional one-fourth of the workforce is between 25 and 34 years old. Every year, roughly 11 million young Africans enter the labor force, but at best, only a quarter of these new workers will find paying jobs over the next decade.

So, how can African governments attract youth to agriculture to tackle the unemployment challenge? First, agriculture needs to appeal to youth. We can do so by sharing the benefits of agriculture as a business to showcase it's not “your grandparents’ agriculture.” 

Agriculture is currently perceived by many young Africans as unattractive – an obvious result of decades of lack of support. Our research indicates that by making farming more profitable and less arduous, governments can attract young Africans into this nearly trillion dollar industry in Africa.  

How do we know that agricultural development is good for youth employment?

Over the past 15 years, governments that have effectively promoted farm productivity growth, such as Rwanda, Burkina Faso and Ethiopia, have enjoyed faster rates of poverty reduction, higher rates of labor productivity in the non-farm segments of the economy, and expanded employment growth in both food systems and non-farm sectors. Because of strong growth connections between agricultural productivity and most other sectors of the economy, even non-farm jobs grow faster when agriculture is strengthened. In short, agriculture is good for everyone.

Engaging young people in agriculture is important, but how do we attract them to the sector?

Whether young people will engage in farming depends on how productive and profitable farming is now and in the future. This depends on agricultural policies and programs that will help youth adopt new technologies and access to productive resources including land, credits and markets. These opportunities would really drive young people to seek viable and attractive career options in the sector.

Are there regional or national differences within African countries that affect youth?

Since 2000, Africa has experienced a sharp decline in the share of its labor force in farming. But the nine countries across sub-Saharan Africa that we studied (Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Mali, Nigeria, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia) show great variations, with share of labor force in farming ranging from 35 percent in Ghana to 54 percent in Rwanda. We also know that urban populations are growing rapidly, but rural-urban migration has slowed down considerably. In much of Africa, rural-rural migration is the most common type of migration.

This is actually great news because the trend shows that more and more youth are finding greater opportunities in other rural areas rather than primarily migrating to cities.

What recommendations would you make to countries which are trying to improve youth unemployment through agriculture?

Country governments should pursue a comprehensive youth livelihoods strategy.

  • First, focus on investing in agricultural productivity growth to create new opportunities for youth in farming that can then lead to the expansion of job opportunities for young people in the broader off-farm economic system.
  • Second, develop evidence-based strategies for assisting rural youth to access land and finance, as these are two of the most salient barriers inhibiting youth participation in agriculture.
  • Third, invest in education and skill development to enable young people to fully realize their monetary potential and maximize their productivity.

All this means redoubling public investments in increasing access to tools, finances, skills and knowledge. We also need more research to find out what forms of education and skill training provide the greatest payoffs to young people, recognizing that the answers are likely to differ across Africa given the differences in economic conditions. And the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Food Policy is doing just that to offer solution to challenges in engaging youth in agriculture and food systems and ensuring their success as workers and entrepreneurs.

To learn more about how youth trends will affect the future of agriculture in Africa, check out the most recent studies from the the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Food Security Policy.