from Africa in Transition

Guest Post: Agriculture and Employment in Africa

September 4, 2012

Blog Post

More on:

Sub-Saharan Africa

Agricultural Policy

Labor and Employment

This is a guest post by Owen Cylke. Mr. Cylke is a development professional and a retired senior foreign service officer with USAID.

This year 10 million young Africans will enter the workforce. This number will continue to increase until 2030 when it will peak at about 18 million annual new entrants to the workforce.

With seventy percent of the African population (and poverty) firmly rooted in rural areas, and development strategies focused on agriculture, will farms be able to absorb these numbers? Demonstrably not.

Africa today is the only region in the world where agriculture continues to play the leading role in economic growth and employment. But subsistence farms are already too small to absorb additional labor. Commercial farms are dependent on improving productivity, by definition labor displacing.

African leaders recognize agricultural employment cannot keep pace with population growth, and are promoting a shift towards manufacturing, and other types of industrial production and services.

What does this mean for public policy? First, that a development strategy focused almost exclusively on agriculture is only half right. True, agriculture is necessary to provide increased food supplies and higher rural incomes. And agriculture will have to play an important role in the transition to other types of economic activity, such as enlarging markets for urban output. But, as noted above, agricultural success carries with it a declining relevance to the growing pool of employment seekers.

Second, a shift from agriculture to industry will not necessarily guarantee enough jobs to meet demand. Today’s labor markets are characterized by informality, inequity, and unreliability – this largely the result of the laissez faire, free market approaches promoted by the international development and economic communities.

Public policy must play a role – a policy regime that extends beyond agriculture (PDF) (and even labor markets themselves) to macroeconomic policy, financial institutions, international economic arrangements, territorial development, demographics, migration and gender policy.

Third, neither the desired sectoral shift nor employment goals will be accomplished automatically. In addition to public policy, they will need an international development and aid strategy that links to and is supportive of that policy.

Today, African thinking and direction stand in uneasy tension with the fixed focus of the international development and economic communities on agriculture and their insistence on the primacy of the market. This tension exists despite the aspirations of the Paris/Accra Declaration on AID Effectiveness (PDF).