University students at a graduation ceremony. Rural employment will be an enduring feature of African economies over the next two decades. Photo/JARED NYATAYA

University students at a graduation ceremony. Rural employment will be an enduring feature of African economies over the next two decades. Photo/JARED NYATAYA  


Young people could be the key to boosting African agriculture, but they need inducements to stay in the countryside, participants at an ILO regional meeting in Johannesburg said.

“The rural world is especially marked by an absence of youths… We need a system to motivate them to stay,” Senegalese union representative Atoumane Diaw told the meeting.

“Old people and women are not enough for development.”

Over two-thirds of the population of sub-Saharan Africa live and work in rural areas, and “rural employment will remain as an enduring feature of many African economies at least over the next two decades”, according to an International Labour Organisation (ILO) working paper.

Unions, governments, employers and experts all agreed at the ILO’s 12th African regional meeting, which ended on Friday, that rural and farm jobs need a major boost, and in particular they need to be more lucrative to stop young people from flocking to the cities.

A change in direction is needed “because we thought for a long time that work was a result of growth but this is not the case,” said the ILO African regional director, Mr Charles Dan of Benin. “Growth comes from exports, but most jobs are in the informal and rural economy.”

Where to begin? “The state should play a role and look after physical infrastructure, and the private sector should invest,” Mr Lassina Traore, the general secretary of the Employers Association of Mali, said.

“In my country, in mango season there are a lot that rot.” An example of a simple investment would be for equipment to make mango pulp and can it for export, he said.

“And to keep young people, we need electricity in the rural areas, as well as health centres and schools,” Mr Traore added.

He said small investments of 50 to 60 million CFA francs $100,000-130,000) could work miracles but that such financing is hard to come by.
Traore’s counterpart from Ghana, Mr Alex Frimpong, echoed him at the podium: “We need seeds, fertilisers, machinery, storage facilities, access to finance, infrastructure.”

Mr Frimpong also stressed the importance of property rights, urging a land registration system.

Senegal’s Diaw noted the need for guaranteed prices: “We need policies through which the state commits to protecting rural incomes,” he said.

Currently, small farmers lack productivity. That is why, the ILO says, they were unable to take advantage of the spikes in food prices of 2006 and 2008.

Greater public and private investment would enable producers to increase value addition in the food supply chain and to minimise their risks, the ILO says.

ILO economist Islam Iyanatul cited the example of machines for making coconut powder: “Admittedly, these are not as glamorous an example as aircrafts, but this diversification makes a big difference.”

African agriculture has a long row to hoe, the ILO notes. “There is a long history of neglect and stagnation” in the sector, where in 17 out of sub-Saharan Africa’s 32 countries per capita food production actually fell between 1990 and 2005.

“As a result, undernourishment remains endemic” in the region, the UN agency says, blaming neglect of agriculture partly on the structural adjustment programmes of the 1980s and 1990s.

“Publicly funded and run infrastructure for rural and agricultural development was largely dismantled in favour of market-based solutions,” it said.

In the face of trade liberalisation, “local producers could not withstand international competition.”

On the positive side, some countries such as Rwanda, Malawi and Ethiopia have seen “a resurgence of pro-agricultural policies and agricultural growth”.

The ILO also cited Benin, Mali, Burkina Faso, Mozambique and Tanzania as countries where pro-agriculture policies have resulted in significant per capita gains in agriculture production in recent years.

But “there is no blueprint for the road ahead (and) conditions can vary greatly from country to country”, it said. (AFP)