Africa’s youth bulge presents both an opportunity and a challenge. More must be done to involve youth in agriculture as a means of providing employment, say Johan Burger and MD Ramesh.
Food scarcity is increasingly appearing on risk agendas worldwide, as risk professionals recognize the additional challenge to business caused by a hungry population. This includes risks to individual businesses and inevitably the risk of political uprising.
As Africa sits on 65% of the uncultivated arable land left in the world, what it does with putting this land to good productive use will determine the future of feeding the world. In Africa itself close to 300 million are malnourished. It is also the only region of the world where the proportion of the population that is food insecure has increased. This telling statistic goes hand in hand with increasing imports of raw food to the continent, which implies that the African failure to provide food first for itself is becoming worse. It is estimated that Africa’s food import bill will rise from the current figure of US$40 billion to US$110 billion by 2030.
Need for change
By the year 2030, 44 million young Africans, aged 15 to 35, will be entering the employment market. Two thirds of them will be from rural Africa. To address the challenges this raises, the unproductive agricultural sector, which currently employs 60% of the African workforce but only contributes 18% of Africa’s GDP, will have to be transformed.
Africa’s youth represents both an opportunity and a challenge. Forty-one percent of Africa’s population is currently below the age of 15, and the number entering the working population (15 - 64) will increase by half a million a year over the coming decades. This “demographic dividend” can boost productivity and economic growth if properly managed and supported. However, it can also represent challenges to societal progress and stability.
Africa’s youth is a source of huge concern. The youth bulge is increasingly looking like a threat, with optimism turning to pessimism. Issues such as political disillusionment, an education-to-skills mismatch and the lure of immigration, or even terrorism, are creating severe challenges for African governments.
Younger, more educated, Africans are leaving rural farm areas. Some of the youngsters are also discouraged by the physical difficulties of farming in general. Watching generations of small-scale farmers fighting circumstances and trying to access funds or land, coupled with the continued reliance on manual technology, all compounded by the low and volatile profits, cannot be encouraging for the youth.
The African Centre for Economic Transformation suggests governments should change their outlook on agriculture from subsistence, daily activity into a commercial enterprise. Focusing on the entire value chain – land tenure, farming technology, markets, and pricing – would help transform food systems around the continent. Positioning farming “as a business and entrepreneurial endeavour” would also help draw younger people into the practice, and make them see it more as a career option.
Former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo has suggested agribusiness as one of the few sectors that can “create the quantum of jobs needed for Africa’s youth.” Agricultural economist Wessel Lemmer believes that with half the population under the age of 25, and 72% of these young people seeking employment, agriculture can be a key contributor to economic development. Positioning agriculture as an attractive career option will need to be coupled with demonstrated plans and investments by governments across Africa to help the youth believe in the potential of this sector.
Developing the value chain
The question that constantly goes begging is why has so little been done to engage the youth? The answer seems to be that there is a massive gap between talking about the issue, even formulating policy on the issue, and actually implementing policy. It is time that African governments start walking the talk. To not do so is to invite calamity, seemingly sooner rather than later.
Involving the youth in agriculture has therefore been a topic of much discussion. They are leaving the agricultural sector and the rural environment, as they do not want to continue with the poverty-driven lifestyle of their parents. To entice them to stay in the agricultural sector, they must be supported and trained in modern farming techniques.
Marketing and market development skills are equally important. Of probably even greater importance is the requirement for cash flow management. The hungry world is a ready market, but the tangles are at the production end.
Africa must get involved in the total value chain in the agricultural sector. This needs to be done not only in national value chains, but also in regional and global value chains. Doing this will increase the value added and transform agricultural sector players from exporters of basic commodities to exporters of value-added products. This will generate all the concomitant benefits for countries in Africa, such as employment opportunities, import substitution, and export revenue generation. As such, given the better value proposition, it is more likely to attract the youth to venture into the agriculture sector than was previously the case. Growing the intra-African trade from its current 12% of total trade would hugely benefit the continent. It would also support employment and entrepreneurial opportunities for the youth.
Johan Burger is the Director of the NTU-SBF Centre for African Studies in Singapore and MD Ramesh is the President and Regional Head, South and East Africa of Olam International Ltd.
This article was first published in both Africa Business and New African, October 2018. Republished with permission of IC Publication.