Rural young people, agriculture and work in Africa: new thinking about an old problem

Four types of work

The basic idea is that work opportunities can be seen to fall into four categories:

  • Protective work, such as food-for-work and labour intensive public works schemes, provides relief from the immediate effects of deprivation. These opportunities are directly dependent on government or other relief programmes, and often form part of a broad system of benefits designed to act as a social safety-net.
  • Preventative work is also defined relative to deprivation, but in this case, it is a matter of forestalling rather than directly relieving deprivation. Examples in rural areas include low productivity, small-scale farming and low-paying, insecure, informal sector work.
  • In contrast, Promotive work allows real incomes and capabilities to be enhanced, and for capital to be accumulated. Most formal sector work would fall into this category, but equally the rapid accumulation of capital (“quick money”) by young tomato producers in Brong Ahafo, Ghana is a rural example of what could be considered as promotive work.
  • Finally, Transformative work allows real incomes and capabilities to be enhanced, and addresses social equity and exclusion issues. Labour laws that regulate worker rights are the most common means of addressing equity and exclusion in the workplace, and it is therefore logical that transformative work opportunities will be associated essentially with the formal sector. In the case of women, transformative work might be regarded as that which increases their social status and contributes to the achievement of gender equity.

This spectrum of work opportunities, from protective to transformative, maps closely to Andrew Dorward’s classification of rural livelihood strategies: “hanging in” (i.e. being reliant on protective or preventative work opportunities), “stepping up” (taking advantage of promotive work opportunities), and “stepping out” (at least for some people, akin to taking advantage of transformative work opportunities).[2]

Each of these work types is important. But for rural young people, and particularly from a developmental perspective, the focus must be on the promotive-transformative end of the continuum.

In rural Africa it is certainly possible to identify some examples of promotive work. But much of today’s smallholder farming, and particularly in remote areas, or where plots are small, natural resources poor and/or productivity low, would have to be considered preventative at best. (In other words, while employment in farming under these conditions averts deprivation, it provides little opportunity for people to accumulate enough capital or assets for social mobility.).

Fundamental restructuring

This highlights an important reality: upgrading employment opportunities within the agricultural sector (i.e. from preventative to promotive and/or transformative), may only come about through the fundamental restructuring of the sector. At best this is likely to be a slow, long-term process.

This is not to say that protective and preventative employment opportunities within agriculture are not valuable. Indeed they are likely to be particularly so for the most disadvantaged. However, protective and preventative employment opportunities may not be sufficient to attract increasingly educated young people with rising aspirations to agriculture.

To achieve impact “at scale” will require promotive work to become the norm. This implies real structural change which is unlikely to be an overnight (or painless) process. As agriculture has modernised in other contexts and regions, the creation of large numbers of promotive jobs has not generally been observed. This picture changes somewhat if the focus shifts from agriculture to the agrifood system more broadly, where urbanisation, changing patterns of labour force participation and rising incomes result in increasing numbers of formal sector (and at least potentially promotive) jobs in areas such as transport, processing and manufacture, food retail and catering.

Future generations

While it is tempting to conclude that agriculture can and should be a central part of the solution to the employment problems faced by the present generation of African rural young people, the real development challenge is in relation to future generations. If the transformation of African agriculture and the agrarian economy more broadly proceed apace, the critical questions over the next five to ten years are these: How many and what kinds of agriculture and food-related jobs will be created? Where will they be located? What knowledge and skills will be required? What kinds of education and training programs will be needed? Now is the time to address these questions systematically and thoroughly.

[1] “Agricultural Policy, Employment Opportunities, and Social Mobility of Africa’s Rural Youth: A Critical Analysis,” by J. Sumberg, N. A. Anyidoho, M. Chasukwa, B. Chinsinga, J. Leavy, G. Tadelea, S. Whitfield, and J. Yaro (2013), commissioned by the UNU-WIDER Prospects for Africa’s Youth project, with additional support from the Future Agricultures Consortium; “Young People, Agriculture, and Transformation in Rural Africa: An ‘Opportunity Space’ Approach,” by J. Sumberg and C. Okali (2013), Transformations (in press).

[2] “Integrating Contested Aspirations, Processes and Policy: Development as Hanging In, Stepping Up and Stepping Out,” by A. Dorward, A. (2009), Development Policy Review 27, 131-146.