Photo by T. Yeboah

Many young people use the rural economy to build their livelihoods. However, it is often the experience of working at home as children, rather than formal education, that enables them to engage with the world of work. Family plays an important role in co-constructing livelihoods with young people, and they often capitalize on family assets, including access to land, capital and skills. Contrary to popular belief, land availability does not appear to a constraint on young people’s engagement in crop production. In addition, many combine farm and non-farm work, but they are not free from vulnerabilities, nor from personal or business-related hazards. These are some of the main findings of our latest open access paper that explores how young people build rural livelihoods in agricultural commercialization hotspots in Ghana, Tanzania and Zimbabwe.

It is increasingly acknowledged that productive youth employment is among the major development challenges of our time. In Africa this challenge is magnified by the small size of the manufacturing and formal service sectors, the domination of economies by the informal sector, and the likelihood that a significant proportion of young people will continue to live in rural areas for decades to come. These realities support the proposition that the rural economy – built around agriculture, but encompassing much more – will need to, and can, provide employment opportunities for many millions of young people into the foreseeable future. Indeed, what might be called the ‘rural prosperity gospel’ has become a pillar of policy discourse around Africa’s rural youth.

But, to date, there has been little or no systematic research that explores the steps, pathways and outcomes associated with the efforts of young people in rural areas to build their livelihoods. Our new open access papercontributes to closing this gap by exploring how young people build rural livelihoods in agricultural commercialization hotspots in Ghana, Tanzania and Zimbabwe.

Schooling, family help and asset accumulation

The research highlights young people’s disappointment with their experience of formal education, particularly with having to drop out because they could not afford school fees (despite in many cases working at the same time as attending school). Rather than formal education, it was their experience of working at home as children that initially enabled them to engage with the world of work. Thus, while many did not have a favourable start regarding their working lives, with hard work, the skills they learnt as children, persistence and resilience they have generally been able to build livelihoods and, in some cases, accumulate assets (e.g. in the form of housing, furniture and savings). To varying degrees, the rural commercialization sites also attract young migrants.

Another important finding is that many young people co-construct livelihoods together with, and through, family members. Family and broader social relations enable them to access the land, capital and skills to begin their ventures. Between access through family and rental markets, there is little evidence that land availability constrains young people’s engagement in crop production. The commercialized rural economies within which they operate offer a variety of non-agricultural income opportunities, and many youth combine farm and non-farm work. Those who do not farm at all are still dependent on a thriving agriculture economy.

The darker side of this picture is that the assets these young people accumulate, and the economic activities that generated them, are vulnerable to hazards. Two main types of hazard were identified: The first is personal and most often health-related, including accident, injury, illness and family tragedy. The second is business-related hazards, which include prolonged drought and unreliable rainfall, low demand for produce or services, theft, police harassment, non-payment by clients, loss of savings, agronomic mistakes, and economic upheaval. Whether working on one’s own farm, as a wage worker, or a business operator, personal and business-related hazards such as these are part of daily life, and to navigate them successfully requires experience, social capital and, sometimes, the liquidation of hard-won assets.

And the future?

One way to see the early livelihood building efforts of young people – their stories of hard work and hazard – is as a training ground in which they gain valuable experience and accumulate some capital, as a result of which are better placed to take advantage of new opportunities in the future. But will the rural economy, even in commercialization hotspots, be able to provide those opportunities?

The fact that young people seek to build livelihoods in rural economies challenges the assumption in policy discourse that young people are not interested in agriculture or rural areas; are unable to access land or capital even if they want to farm; and see migration to towns or urban areas as the default option. While it is safe to assume that some young people have already left the study villages, the research provides no indication that those remaining are driven by a strong desire to pack up and go. On the contrary; overwhelmingly, their plans for the future include the expansion or diversification of activities within the rural economy.

These findings also call into question the most common proposals for youth-specific interventions in rural areas including the provision of preferential access to land and credit. It is not at all clear whether additional training or skills would make a material difference to the lives of young people like these, and neither is it clear whether or not existing markets and their own management skills would allow them to make effective use of additional resources or absorb additional capital. On the other hand, without better basic education, including but not limited to literacy and numeracy skills, it is hard to see how the pathways and outcomes of the next generation of young people will change for the better. The sense of disappointment that many young people express regarding their experience with formal education highlights, again, the need to address both the quality of education in rural areas and, just as importantly, the cash costs that put ‘free’ education out of the reach of many rural children.

Finally, this research draws attention to a potential new area of intervention – the use of social protection measures to help minimize the risks associated with hazards, so that young people’s hard-earned assets are less vulnerable to loss. Preventative social protection measures, including both formal and informal social insurance mechanisms, might play a role in de-risking the initial phase of rural livelihood building. A new focus along these lines would better align policies addressing Africa’s rural youth with the reality of their lives.

This post is based on the open access article by Yeboah, T., Chigumira, E., John, I., Anyidoho, N. A., Manyong, V., Flynn, J., & Sumberg, J. (2020). Hard work and hazard: Young people and agricultural commercialisation in Africa. Journal of Rural Studies, 76, 142-151.

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