Farming could be key to solving youth unemployment in Africa

Sub-Saharan Africa has the world's youngest and fastest growing population. With enough support from African leaders, agricultural initiatives will boost employment and the economy.

Agriculture employs most of Africa's young people and is likely to continue to do so in the future. But to meet the aspirations of millions who want rewarding work, the continents's agricultural sector will have to change markedly. Today's farming by machete and hand hoe does not appeal to young Africans or to policymakers. Farming is not even viewed as a "job" by many young Africans, who instead reserve the term for employment that requires clean clothes and a desk. Yet for a generation of young people entering adulthood, agriculture offers the best opportunity to move out of poverty and build satisfying lives.

Markets for food are booming globally and in Africa. Recent trends in income growth, urbanisation and diet have created a sharp rise in demand for food. Although most food consumed in Africa south of the Sahara is produced there, imports also have increased significantly in the past decade because growth in demand outpaces local and regional supply.

African farmers have an opportunity to bring more products to markets that consumers want and increasingly can afford. Who will serve these markets? African or outside producers? The answer depends on decisions that African leaders make regarding policies and public investments that affect the competitiveness of local farmers.

Africa has abundant resources suited for agriculture – especially land, water and labour. Africa's population is growing rapidly and will continue to do so until 2050, when the pace will slow. Young people seeking to establish farms different from those of their parents and grandparents have many options, but they also face daunting hurdles. They can farm a portion of their family land, but to do so while earning higher incomes will require skills and capital to move into high-value forms of production, such as horticulture or small livestock. They also may venture out and establish their own independent farms, often in their same community. Malawi's programme to redistribute under-utilised land from former tea estates created opportunities for local people to start new farms, and many who did so were young.

Young people the world over often enter farming by renting land at first. The poor development of rental markets in much of Africa, however, acts as a major barrier to such opportunities. In many parts of Africa, paradoxically, it is easier for large outside investors to obtain farmland than it is for local young people.

Those who can obtain land will need advice and mentoring to manage it well and access to grants or affordable loans to use as start-up capital. Programmes such as rural and community banks in Ghana to help qualified young people enter farming are much needed. Such banks are now the largest providers of formal financial services in rural areas in Ghana, reaching an estimated 680,000 borrowers (pdf), and with some additional outreach, they could be leveraged to benefit young people.

Many young people will not want to take the risk of establishing their own mid-sized farms, instead they opt for a combination of some part-time farming and supplying services to their neighbours, such as machinery service, transport, simple veterinary services, repair of equipment, etc. Others may choose from an even wider range of wage-based work, from unskilled day labour to highly skilled positions on large commercial farms or in food processing. All of these options represent real opportunities for Africa's young people.

In order to take advantage, however, they need skills to handle a range of tasks and equipment. An excellent example of the type of wage-based employment that will require young people to receive some technical training is Red Fox Ethiopia, a floriculture firm outside Addis Ababa that draws labour from the surrounding rural areas and towns and offers employer-provided transport to work, life and health insurance and a subsidised cafeteria.

Policymakers soon must recognise the importance of agriculture for employment of the young, and redouble efforts to transform the sector. Despite 10 years of commitments by Africa's leaders to invest in agriculture and a modest improvement in performance, particularly after 2008, change is coming too slowly. Per capita output is growing, but this is largely because more land and labour are used and commodity prices are high. Growth in productivity, both of land and labour, lags behind that in other regions of the world. Improved seed varieties are now used on about a third of planted area – better than a decade ago, but still far behind other regions (pdf). Moreover, many of these improved varieties are 10-year-old hybrids that do not perform as well as more recently developed seeds.

The scientific foundations of African agriculture need rapid and focused strengthening. Regulations and policies still impede rapid progress in a variety of areas, from difficulty transferring rights to use land, to slow approval of new seeds and plant protection agents, to barriers at borders for trade in products, inputs, and technologies.

African leaders must convert their rhetorical commitment to agriculture into actions that transform the lives of millions of rural young people. Their efforts will be repaid with an outpouring of energy and initiative sufficient to raise incomes, improve food security, deliver better nutrition, and boost the balance of payments. Africa's youth dividend is in the countryside, and a vibrant agricultural sector is the mechanism through which to collect it.