HOT TOPIC: Agribusiness, FAC and young people

Many researchers and development professionals with an interest in poverty, agriculture and rural areas in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) view agribusiness with suspicion. For them, agribusiness is synonymous with big business, transnational corporations, globalisation, international capital, export crops and large-scale plantations. More often than not, these are seen to culminate in the exploitation of local people and resources. The book Agribusiness in Africa, written by Barbara Dinham and Colin Hines in 1984, articulates many of the arguments which underpin this hostility. While the research literature addressing the structure and roles of large-scale agribusiness in SSA is limited, some examples and insights supporting these arguments can be gained from work relating to contract farming, international value chains and more recently, large-scale land deals.

There is of course another view. Those who see technology, inputs and engagement with new markets as critical for the enhancement of agricultural productivity in SSA tend to look differently upon the potential contribution of agribusiness. Indeed, from their perspective, the rural population of SSA will never be able to farm its way out of poverty – nor act as an engine for broader economic growth – in the absence of dynamic, growth-oriented agribusiness. Agencies such as USAID, the World Bank and IFDC, as well as initiatives such as the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), actively promote the development of agribusiness. Their underlying analysis is that agribusiness and the entrepreneurialism that drives it have for too long been stifled by state involvement in the agricultural sector, to the detriment of both family farmers and consumers.

How do these two views relate to each other? What are the implications of different views of agribusiness for FAC, and specifically for our work on rural young people?

Our consideration of these questions must take account of four facts and a proposition:

Fact 1: Agribusiness is ubiquitous in SSA and is highly heterogeneous, ranging in form and scale from individual traders, shops and kiosks, through small and large national production, processing, marketing and input firms, to transnational companies.

Fact 2: Most agribusiness activity is relatively small-scale and serves the domestic market

Fact 3: Agribusiness provides family farmers with access to markets, inputs, technology, employment and consumer goods

Fact 4: The relationship between agribusiness and family farmers can be synergistic and/or competitive

Proposition: In the coming years, agribusiness will only become more important in SSA

The argument that emerges is that when considering the future of African agriculture nether of the two contrasting views about agribusiness in Africa identified above is adequate. By characterising agribusiness essentially as greedy transnational corporations, the first neglects the diversity and the domestic orientation of much agribusiness activity, and also the many, close and often beneficial links that these activities have with family farming and the broader rural economy. On the other hand, the second view fails to take account of the potential for asymmetries of knowledge and power, and the exploitation than can result. It also backgrounds the experience from many other parts of the world, where in the absence of effective regulation, the agri-food sector’s search for greater profit has contributed to significant negative livelihood, health and environmental impacts.

In short, agribusiness per se is neither good nor bad: a much more nuanced analysis is required.

FAC is concerned with the politics around and potential implications of alternative visions of the future of African agriculture. The three most widely promoted of these alternative visions are:

  1. Food sovereignty (self-determination, self-sufficiency, agro-ecology, local markets)
  1. Increased market engagement (improved coordination, entrepreneurialism, technology and inputs)
  1. Increased market engagement with increasing scale (improved coordination, entrepreneurialism, technology and inputs, mechanisation, land reform, corporate investment)

It is important to note that these visions tend to: (1) focus narrowly on the “farming” or primary production function of the agri-food sector, and (2) gloss over the considerable heterogeneity that is already present within the sector in SSA. Debates around these alternatives often get reduced to “self-sufficiency” versus “markets” and “small” versus “large”. In the process they ignore on-going changes to the wider agri-food sector such as the increasingly important role of supermarkets, changing diets, greater emphasis on industrial-scale processing, increasingly stringent quality specifications and controls, greater vertical integration etc.

What has this got to do with FAC’s emerging work on young people?

To date this work has put the life aspirations of rural young people at centre stage and highlighted the need to better understand the apparent (long-term and growing?) mis-match between these aspirations and the job and career opportunities offered by agriculture (see FAC Discussion Paper 013). The questions that arise from this framing are around the forces and factors affecting young people’s aspirations; how aspirations are gendered and evolve over time; young people’s perceptions of the ability of rural areas, and agriculture in particular, to satisfy these aspirations etc. Here again, agriculture has been conceived of quite narrowly, with the emphasis on young people’s engagement – or not – with farming (i.e. primary production) activities.

However, it follows from the discussion above that any consideration of the future engagement of young people with agriculture requires a much broader view of the agri-food sector and the critical role that agribusiness plays within it. Thus, for those visions of future agricultures in SSA that are based on increased market engagement and investment in technology and inputs, it is reasonable to assume that over the medium to long term they will result in significant changes in employment opportunities within the agri-food sector. Specifically, jobs will tend to move from informal and small-scale organisations to formal and large-scale ones; from artisanal to more industrial processing; from wet-markets to store-based retail; and from rural to town and city locations. In other words, it is now critical to acknowledge that these visions combined with broader economic and demographic trends will have important human resources implications, in terms e.g. of the number, kind, status and location of jobs, the gendered nature of these jobs, required training and skill levels, and so on.

Who will fill these jobs (and who will lose-out as a result)? How far will the new opportunities go in allowing young people from rural areas to meet their life aspirations? What are the implications for policy relating to education, training, employment and rural development? These questions cut across all FAC research themes and need to be addressed in a coordinated way.

In summary, when thinking about young people’s future relationship with agriculture, it is absolutely essential that we move beyond three far too simplistic notions:

  • agribusiness = big business = exploitation
  • agriculture = farming = rural
  • the objective is to keep rural young people engaged in farming


Hines, C., and B. Dinham. 1984. Agribusiness in Africa: A Study of the Impact of Big Business on Africa’s Food and Agricultural Production. Trenton, N.J.: Africa World Press.

Leavy, J. and S. Smith. 2010. Future Farmers: Youth Aspirations, Expectations and Life Choices. FAC Discussion Paper 013.