Sub-Saharan Africa rural youth: Investing today for a better tomorrow

Africa has a unique population profile, with 44% of its population under age 15 in 2006 making Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) the youngest region of the world. Today, two out of three inhabitants of SSA are under 25 years of age. Youth make up about 37% of the working-age population, but account for roughly 60% of the total unemployed, which is much higher than the world’s average for 2005 (44%). It is estimated that the absolute number of rural youth will continue to increase in most parts of SSA until 2030 due to high fertility rates and marginal increase in life expectancy.

In SSA, youth are employed primarily in agriculture, where they account for 65% of the total employment. In 2005, it was estimated that more than 100 million youth (between 15-24 years) were living on less than US$2/day and 40 million were undernourished. The high rates of unemployment and underemployment, coupled with nonremunerative job prospects, have fueled a massive rural-urban migration where young women and men arrive in urban areas in search of a better future but lack the skills to seize nascent, remunerative employment opportunities. This migration deprives certain rural areas of needed labor, places additional stress on urban areas ill-equipped to integrate rapidly expanding populations and introduces additional instability into fragile urban dynamics. In the long run, however, as economies develop, the percent of the population involved in farming decreases, as agricultural productivity rises and the demand for labor expands in other sectors.  

This dual phenomenon of expanding population and rural-urban migration is occurring against a backdrop of required increases in food production in SSA estimated at 70% by 2050, greater projected buying power  by a burgeoning African middle class, and a globalization of agricultural supply chains. This  presents significant on-farm and off-farm opportunities for today’s and tomorrow’s rural youth, provided that they have the skills to capitalize on this increased demand for more and better quality foodstuffs.  

To meet this increased demand, agriculture in SSA must change from extensive production systems, characterized by minimal inputs and low yields to intensive systems which require greater investments in external inputs and labour saving technologies, but hold the potential to greatly increase yields and  provide decent incomes for today’s and tomorrow’s young farmers. Moving from subsistence agriculture to farming as a business represents a fundamental change in a farmer’s operating model. It’s about much more than learning new crop production and post-harvest handling techniques. It’s also about learning basic business management, marketing and advocacy skills, to fully profit from the opportunities on the horizon. There is a vast volume of evidence that suggests that better educated farmers have higher yields, greater income and invest in off-farm activities, generating additional revenue streams.  

Increased purchasing power of SSA middle classes, the globalization of agricultural supply chains and  the  transformation of SSA production systems open up many off-farm rural employment opportunities in the agricultural  and non-agricultural sectors. More and better vocational training programmes are essential to absorb labour surpluses which are a natural outcome of agricultural development. 

There is no greater obligation of government and its partners nor larger potential payoff  than equipping SSA’s rural  youth to be productive, pro-active citizens who earn a decent wage and contribute to the development of a  continent which their children will inherit in the not too distant future. Agricultural and vocational training must be  the foundation on which to construct a better tomorrow.  

July, 2012