World Bank Photo Collection2 via Flickr ; 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Young people need jobs and growing economies need workers. Historically, farms and rural areas have sent young people to jobs in cities and factories, and this process of global urbanization continues. Between now and 2050, the flow of people to cities plus the shift in births to urban areas will result in a decline of approximately 150 million in the global rural population. In regions such as East Asia, Eastern Europe, and much of Latin America, where families are small and grown children move to cities, the rural population is declining and aging rapidly. In contrast, high birth rates in rural Africa south of the Sahara will add about 350 million people by 2050, despite a massive flow of the young to urban areas. Over the next decade, an estimated 11 million additional young men and women will seek employment every year.

Where will young people find jobs? Concern about present and future employment opportunities is high in both advanced and developing countries. Job creation in labour-intensive manufacturing – the sector that employed many young people in past generations – appears to be slowing down. Automation and the expansion of information and communication technologies have reduced the number of low-wage manufacturing jobs, many of which are in towns and cities. At the same time, rural areas offer new advantages, as improved and cheaper machines lessen the drudgery of farm work and mobile phones and the Internet reduce the isolation of villages and remote areas. Young people born on farms choosing to remain in rural areas have more opportunities than in the past, and agriculture is receiving new attention as a potential source of employment.

Farms that attract young people will need to be profitable. They will need to substitute modern technology and managerial acumen for the short hoe and back-breaking labour. Neither existing farmers nor potential young entrants to the job market can accomplish the transformation from traditional to modern farming on their own – the public and private sectors have major roles to play. With investments in agricultural science, better flows of information to and from farms, easier intergenerational transfer of land, and opportunities for the private sector to thrive in rural areas, agriculture can deliver growth, prosperity, and jobs, particularly in south of the Sahara. Yet the potential of agriculture will not be realized automatically. Without a major change in agricultural policy and public investment, the best opportunities for creating a financially secure future for millions of today’s rural young people will be forfeited at enormous cost to them and society.

Changes in land use and farm size will be particularly important in stimulating change. The ability of agriculture to absorb labour will require more clarity in land rights and a higher frequency of transactions – through purchases, sales, rentals, and the re-assignment of use-rights – than is currently the case. The acquiring of African farmland by foreign investors without recognition of the rights of current users has gained much attention of late, and rightly so. Far less notice is paid to the difficulties that young people face when village elders or traditional authorities restrict their access to land. When they are unable to start new farms, young people have little choice than to crowd onto existing family plots, fragmenting farms into holdings too small to support adequate earnings or the adoption of modern farming methods.

Underinvestment in agricultural science represents a further systemic barrier to the participation of young people and job creation. Although agricultural growth in south of the Sahara has been rapid by historic and global standards (at about 4% annually), little can be attributed to improved technology or the application of scientific innovations. Most growth still comes from expanded area and the addition of more labour. Even after the global spike in agricultural prices in 2007–2008 and in 2010–2011 brought renewed commitment to agriculture, public investment in national agricultural research systems has languished. Investments were allocated disproportionately into short-term measures such as fertilizer subsidies and the rehabilitation of irrigation, instead of into rebuilding Africa’s capacity in agricultural science.

African leaders have recognized in principle that transformative agricultural growth requires more investment in science and technology. In 2014, at the 23rd African Union Summit in Malabo, they pledged to implement the Science Agenda for Agriculture in Africa. Africa’s future agricultural success will need to embrace a scientific revolution that allows scientists to engage fully at the frontiers of world science and translate new developments into practical solutions. Global scientific partners, such as the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), also have much to contribute and can be even more effective as capacity within the national systems grows.

Young Africans, like their peers elsewhere, are already contributing to the 21 century’s rural transformation, finding ways to meet the challenges of current and future food security, improved nutrition, climate change, and the protection of natural resources. They do so despite underinvestment in agricultural science and technology, blocked intergenerational transfers of land, poor quality rural education, and limited access to financial services. Removing or reducing these barriers will attract more young people to agricultural careers and help those already farming to do so more successfully. The payoff in terms of success will be great – for rural communities, for countries in Africa south of the Sahara, and for young people themselves.

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