Author interviewing a farmer in central Uganda / Josh Maiyo

Rather than focusing on youth as vulnerable and marginalized, a more appropriate approach would be to match their capacities in innovation and entrepreneurship with the development of sustainable agricultural value chains.

This post is a response to the expert contribution ‘Passionate youth for agricultural development’, which is based on the policy dialogue between Dutch policymakers, knowledge institutes and NGOs on effective approaches to empower youth in agribusiness. The discussion appears to be premised on the assumption that rural Africa’s youth constitute a distinct socio-economic demographic that is particularly affected by unequal economic growth and income disparities. To support this argument, the article cites ‘barriers’ that prevent youth from effectively engaging in agriculture. Consequently, it proposes specific interventions to empower youth, within the new policy agenda of ‘inclusive development’. This rejoinder questions the validity of the underlying assumptions and proposed interventions and suggests an alternative approach.

The concept of inclusive development is premised on the existence (and clear identification) of specific social groups that are ‘excluded’ from the economic development process. Singling out youth as one such category requires the distinct ways in which they are specifically marginalized to be identified. Are they affected by unequal development in ways that are different from other groups, such as women or smallholder farmers? On further investigation, it seems that the factors that proponents of this view cite as curtailing the effective participation of youth in agriculture are not youth-specific, but apply to most vulnerable social groups. These include limited access to knowledge, land, financial services and markets and exclusion from policy making. There is no evidence to show that youth are disproportionately affected by economic inequalities in rural areas. How, then, should the ‘youth in agriculture’ question be framed and understood?

The demographic bulge

The most commonly cited reason for targeting youth in development policy is the so-called ‘demographic bulge’. It is estimated that about 60% of Africa’s population are under 25 years of age, 70% of whom reside in rural areas. The debate oscillates between describing the youth bulge as a potential dividend and a ticking time-bomb. High population growth rates, declining agricultural productivity and increased unemployment are more concrete reasons for youth-focused policy making than perceived exclusion. As 65% of youth in rural areas are employed in agriculture, the proposition to target only a small group of ‘motivated and entrepreneurial’ youth is ill-founded and contradictory. The goal of mass poverty alleviation can only be achieved through a broad-based approach that distributes economic dividends across all demographic categories by building on each country’s comparative advantages.

Agriculture as a last resort

The argument that agriculture is not glamorous and that youth turn to it only as a last resort is not supported by the empirical evidence. The OECD, AfDB and UNDP agree that agriculture is still the largest employer of Africa’s youth labour force. Any proposition that there is comparatively unequal access to opportunities for youth in agriculture is thus, unfounded. Policy interventions based on such false assumptions risk being counterproductive. My own PhD research in Uganda found that the majority of rural youth prefer to engage in agriculture in combination with other complementary livelihood strategies. Agriculture does not need to be made ‘sexy’, it needs to be made viable as an economic enterprise, as opposed to the simple livelihood strategy that it currently is. This is already happening in some countries, as Amadou Sy, Director of the Africa Growth Initiative points out. Malawi and Uganda have agriculture sectors that are strong enough to support savings and investment by farmers. All that is needed, as FAO and other actors have identified, is to increase incentives, not just for youth, but for all smallholder famers in Africa.

Youth and policy making

For decades, participatory development has been touted as necessary for inclusive development, and still remains fashionable in development circles. The call to include youth in agriculture policy making as a panacea for their perceived exclusion may appear progressive, but it is actually disingenuous for many reasons. It assumes the absence of inclusive youth-oriented policy making by African governments. It also reflects development actors’ persistent view of African policy makers as lacking an understanding of their own developmental imperatives. Such an approach is not only misplaced and impractical, but counterproductive. For example, expert research and my own fieldwork has shown that Uganda has excellent policies, but lacks the capacity and political will to implement them. A proper diagnosis of the policy landscape in individual countries and a focus on supporting implementation strategies would be a more productive entry point.

The resurgence of agriculture as the engine for Africa’s future development is well documented. While some of the continent’s leading thinkers propose a path beyond reliance on commodities, the promise of agricultural modernization through technological change remains critical to the agrarian transformation of Africa. However, rather than focusing on youth as a vulnerable and marginalized group, a more appropriate approach would be to match their capacities in innovation and entrepreneurship with the development of sustainable agricultural value chains. This can be done through appropriate investment in infrastructure, technology, financing, agro-industrial processing and market access. In developing policy positions, development partners should, thus, seek sustained partnerships with African policymakers and practitioners and eschew traditional ‘donor’ approaches of constructing policy in the northern ‘core’ and channelling its implementation to the ‘periphery’.

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