Sub-Saharan Africa has the largest “youth bulge” (15–24 year olds) in the world, and the number of young people is expected to grow by 42.5 million between 2010 and 2020, according to the World Bank. Current trends suggest that much of the bulge will be accounted for by countries in West, Central, and East Africa. By 2040, the number of young Africans joining the labour force will exceed that of the rest of the world combined. With over 12% of African youth currently unemployed or underemployed, sub-Saharan Africa has one of the highest unemployment rates in the world. The continent will need to create more than 18 million jobs per year until 2040 to absorb the new entrants into the labour force. 

[Editor’s note: Paul Okiira Okwi is a Senior Program Officer with the Think Tank Initiative and Employment and Growth Programs of IDRC. He is based at IDRC’s Regional Office for Sub-Saharan Africa in Nairobi.]

A recent study by the World Bank shows that a large portion of people aged 15–24, including graduates, in Sub-Saharan Africa are involved in self-employment in the informal sector. For example, in Mali 94% of the population is employed in the informal sector, and the respective figures for Ethiopia and South Africa are 74% and 31%. Employment levels for this (15–24) age bracket, compared to the total population, has remained largely stagnant despite this age group increasing in size. This means that more and more youth are not fully ab­sorbed in the economy and, as a result, are not making significant increases in income and employment. For example, according to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), in six of the ten countries surveyed in 2013, over 60% of young people are either (a) unemployed, (b) working in low quality, irregular, low wage jobs, often in the informal economy, or (c) neither in the labour force nor in education or training. In Liberia, Malawi, and Togo, the figure exceeds 70%. Moreover, differences in income and employment persist between young men and women, those in rural and urban areas, fragile and non-fragile environments, and across vocations. 

Agriculture as an Alternative

The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the African Development Bank (AfDB) consider agriculture to be among the most viable potential source of employment for young people. The World Bank projects that agriculture and agribusiness in Africa will grow to be a US$1 trillion industry in Africa by 2030 and Africa’s food markets alone are projected to increase from $313 billion in 2010 to more than $1 trillion in 2040.  Despite this potential, even though much attention has been paid to the agriculture sector by governments and development partners, implementation of programmes meant to revive the sector has been weak — especially for those activities that increase productivity and transform farm outputs into final products. The sector has registered very limited success in terms of generating decent and gainful rewarding employment opportunities for young people.

In Uganda, for example, with increasing challenges in the agricultural sector, including climate related risks like increased variable rainfall and higher temperatures, pest epidemics, limited accessibility to arable land, poor farming practices, limited market access and weak implementation of agricultural laws and policies, most youth do not view agriculture as an attractive economic opportunity. To go into farming, they would have to design new production coping mechanisms, shift what they produce and how they produce it, and find markets for their produce. This would include, to name just a few examples, huge investments in terms of skill acquisition, time, land management, and shifts from traditionally known farming systems to greenhouse production or from large numbers of cattle to small manageable high yielding varieties. Situations like the recent drought in the East African region aggravate the perceived risks in the sector and serve to deter many youth from engaging in agricultural work. In addition, most governments in the region do not have practical strategies to support young entrepreneurs and farmers in the sector.

Turning agriculture into a serious employment option for young people will require a great deal of reflection and raises many questions such as: How can the sector be restructured to make it more attractive to young people? What needs to be done to remove the persistent structural bottlenecks in the sector? How can we encourage locally driven innovations in the agricultural sector? How can we attract and keep young people in the agricultural sector and create decent jobs for them along the agriculture value chain? What role/how can technical and vocational education play in facilitating creativity and innovation by the youth in the sector?

How Think Tanks Play a Role

Think tanks can play a leading role in supporting governments to address policy challenges like this. New research by International Development Research Centre (IDRC) supported think tanks in Rwanda and Uganda is showing how desperate and grossly neglected African youth are. For a long time they have received non-viable “fire-fighting” political solutions to address their problems. They do not have access to the relevant agricultural information, credit, land, or services they need. Yet, these young people have the energy, innovativeness and interest to work, and with support they could modernize the sector and enhance its productivity. In Tanzania, for example, after failing to secure gainful employment, three young graduates from Sokoine University started a milk processing enterprise called Shambani_Graduate_Enterprise (SGE).  They started off with one milk supplier, with an initial processing capacity of 30 litres. Today the plant receives milk from over 300 suppliers and has a processing capacity of more than 1000 litres of milk. The company creates employment, promotes milk consumption and advocates for graduates to create wealth and jobs through agricultural based entrepreneurship.

Through research, think tanks like the Economic Policy Research Centre (EPRC)  in Uganda have contributed to the adoption of policies on the use of fertilizers that should lead to a boost in production in the sector. EPRC research highlighted that Uganda’s soils were no longer fertile and required use of fertilizers to bolster soil nutrients for better agricultural yields. With increased yields, the agricultural sector has great potential to generate employment and attract youth because formal skill requirements are typically low at the beginning, which allows youth to learn by gradually moving from sim­ple tasks to more sophisticated production.

The Gender Dimensions

From a gender perspective, labour force participation among young women aged 15-24 is generally higher in sub-Saharan Africa than other regions of the world. However, over 60% of all working women in sub-Saharan Africa remain in traditional female occupations or within the domestic and farming sectors. These are typically concentrated in time and labour-intensive activities, and are unpaid or poorly remunerated. Lack of land ownership, credit and other production inputs often limits young women’s productivity and leaves them in extreme poverty. Agricultural feminization is therefore prevalent among sub-Saharan African low income countries, and further improvements in women’s labour market outcomes are needed. 

The Way Forward

For agriculture to become a potential and viable economic alternative for the youth in Africa, think tanks in Africa need to take leadership in:  

  1. Supporting ‘implementation research” initiatives that aim to develop employment strategies that are empirically based and context specific. Think tanks need to (i) investigate what works best in the agriculture and employment areas, and (ii) through research and advocacy, support those that have succeeded by innovating, scaling-up and replicating the success stories.
  2. Encouraging governments to revisit their land policies. Uganda for example, lacks a coherent and well-defined national policy; instead, land is governed by a number of scattered policies that exclude youth and women. Through its research and advocacy work, Makerere Institute for Social Research’s (MISR) land team is engaged in discussions around whether land should be governed by custom, by contractual leasehold agreements or by freehold tenure and how it can be made more accessible to all, in particular women and youth. As an important factor of production, especially in rural areas, a review of the current land policies, if transparently done, would open up ownership and access to land in Uganda to all.
  3. By working with other actors in the public and private sector, researching and advocating for reforms in technical and vocational based education to address the current needs of the sector. This involves reviewing the curriculum, improving facilities and training instructors to respond to the agricultural opportunities. Since a majority of the continent’s young people are those who left school before university and remain in rural areas, designing programmes that provide skills based on level of education, while incorporating gender considerations, will help address the challenge. For example, in typical pastoralist areas, invest in basic veterinary education to help increase productivity, the processing of animal products and the management of livestock.
  4. Undertaking research, advocating and assisting in uptake of targeted policy interventions based on locality, agro-economic zones, gender and employment needs. Think tanks should collaborate with various actors in government and research organisations to enhance the use of empirical findings for agricultural and employment policy. Current strategies use the ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach, which masks the variations in spatial resource potentials, gender and other needs. For example, the resource potential and skill needs for girls in rural fishing villages are not similar to those for young females in semi-nomadic areas.

Overall, sub-Saharan Africa needs to generate more jobs and reverse the employment gender gap. However, many of Africa’s youth will not have the opportunity to find wage-earning jobs in the formal sector. Instead, they will look for work within the household, within the informal sector or in the agricultural sector. Of these three areas, the agriculture sector has the potential to provide the greatest opportunities, but only if the constraints are better addressed. Think tanks are in a role to do this by generating the evidence for policies that create better opportunities in the agriculture sector through supporting research, advocacy and collaboration between government and other key actors.