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Young People, Agriculture, and Transformation in Rural Africa: An “Opportunity Space” Approach
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Over the last decade, both agriculture and young people have become increasingly prominent on African development agendas. Politicians, policymakers, and development professionals have confronted food price volatility, food insecurity, and the phenomenon of large-scale land grabs on the one hand, and the entrenched under- and unemployment among young people—the (youthful) human face of the phenomenon of jobless growth—on the other. It is perhaps not surprising that many have put two and two together, concluding that engagement in production agriculture (including crops, livestock, and fisheries) is an obvious (if not the obvious) opportunity through which to address the problem of limited economic opportunity for young people in rural areas. Associated with this view is the assumption that rural young people would be better off if they did not migrate to urban areas, thus avoiding exposure to risky and illegal behavior (sex, HIV/AIDS, drugs, crime) and potential entanglement in dangerous political activity.

Most of the policies and programs that attempt to engage young people in rural Africa with agriculture are essentially variants of “making markets (and globalization) work for the poor.” Framed with the language of enterprise, entrepreneur-ship, and value chains, they promote farming as a business and the professionalization of agriculture. Many such programs and projects provide training and access to microcredit, technology, and other resources. They also commonly insist on various forms of group action, for example, to engage in new markets.

We suggest that, in promoting the idea that young people living in rural areas would be better off if they just buckled down to an agricultural life, policymakers and the development community more generally are taking a position for which there is little if any evidence or supporting research. Furthermore, as enticing as the link between agriculture and employment for young people may first appear, it must be recognized that it flies in the face of longstanding evidence, that in at least some situations, both rural young people and their parents hold farming and rural life in very low esteem. Indeed, investing in children’s education so they can get out of farming and move on to formal work in the public or private sector is a long-established strategy in rural Africa.

In addition to the dominant discourse around market-based solutions—an important part of the background of the repeated referencing of entrepreneurship and entrepreneurial attitudes and behavior, with some initiatives promising to transform job seekers into job creators—is the current focus in the development community on “impact” and “scaling up,” and the imperative to deliver “impact at scale.” From an analytical perspective, this focus foregrounds questions about the nature of the expected development gains (How many jobs over what time period? What kinds of jobs? Jobs for whom?) and the role of or necessity for structural change in delivering these jobs.

A critical factor here is that many, if not most, initiatives are based on an undifferentiated view of young people. The language says it all: “the youth,” as if they all have the same aspirations, talents, opportunities, access to resources, networks, interests, and needs, and will therefore benefit from the same limited array of interventions. This clearly is not the case, any more than it is for other longstanding and equally problematic categories, including the poor, women, or small farmers. While it is obvious that policy and programs cannot be designed to address the unique circumstances of every individual, one of the most important lessons from the last two decades of poverty-focused development is that context and difference matter enormously.

Our argument is that entrepreneurship-based policy and programs that address the job challenges facing young people in rural Africa need to be much more firmly grounded than is generally the case at present. Specifically, in terms of expectations, design, and implementation, they must take explicit account of the highly diverse and changing rural economic and social realities within which young people find themselves (and indeed help to shape), in addition to the diversity of the young people themselves.

In the next section, we first identify four categories that we believe are useful when thinking about work from a development perspective. We then present the notion of...



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