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Olukayode Oyeleye: Empowering youths through agro-business

By on September 23, 2012

In December 2009, the United Nations General Assembly adopted resolution 64/134 proclaiming August 12 of every year as the International Year of Youth. The celebration commenced on August 12, 2010 and it has since been observed as such annually. This came at a time the issue of youths, globally, could no longer be ignored.

The United Nation’s Population Fund estimates the global youth population at 1.05 billion.  Today’s generation of young people – defined by the UN as those aged 15 to 24 – is the largest in history. In developing countries, young people make up 20 per cent of the population on the average, and as such, they represent a huge potential resource to those countries.

The numbers of young people are growing fast in developing countries. This is especially evident in sub-Saharan Africa where, in some countries, more than 60 per cent of the population is less than 25 years old. This increases pressure on the labour market. Yet, ironically, rural areas are not benefiting fully from this resource; indeed, many rural communities are ageing precisely because, in the absence of incentives to remain there, young women and men are leaving to seek opportunities elsewhere.

When young rural women and men cannot get adequate education, make a living or create a secure home, they move to sprawling urban areas or to foreign countries they believe offer more hope. Some continue to contribute to their communities by sending money home, but too many others become mired in urban poverty. This is a tremendous loss of human potential for their families, and for their nations.

Recent statistics from the International Labour Organisation showed that between 1997 and 2007, the ratio of youth-to-adult unemployment rose from 2:6 to 2:8; meaning that young people today are almost three times more likely to be unemployed than adults. Alarming as these figures may be, the plight of the estimated 300 million young people classified as working poor is equally grave. They earn less than $2 a day, outnumber young unemployed people by a factor of 4 and typically work in rural areas.

During the recent economic crises, global youth unemployment rate rose from 11.9 to 13.0 per cent (between 2007 and 2009). The consequences of failing to provide job opportunities for these young men and women can be far-reaching. Underemployed rural young people, particularly,become frustrated and idle because they have failed to find decent jobs after migrating to urban centres. Unfortunately, urban labour markets are frequently unable to absorb the inflow of migrant workers, and many young migrants lack the education and skills to compete for decent urban jobs and therefore contribute to social unrest, crime and even armed conflicts.

Young people have power and persistence. In the right conditions, a substantial young generation offers countries a priceless resource for economic development and social progress. On the flip side, acting in the wrong direction, disenchanted youth can bring a nation on its knees. Unfolding events in the Arab region, and more sporadic incidents in Europe and elsewhere bear testimony, among other things, to the consequences of populations that are both young and unemployed. Although the level and the nature of grievances differ, when young people are frustrated by poverty, unemployment and lack of rights, they do not sit by passively. They act. Meanwhile, population growth continues. The number of 15 to 24-year-olds in the Near East and North Africa is projected to rise by at least seven million over the next 10 years, meaning that more than two thirds of the population will be under 24. This is both a valuable window of demographic opportunity and a challenge.

One of our greatest global challenges — feeding the world — is also our greatest opportunity. With world population set to peak at over nine billion in 2050, and projections that food production will need to rise by 70 per cent, creating opportunities for young farmers and workers in rural areas is crucial. The sheer force of numbers means that we urgently need to harness the power and creativity of young adults on every continent. We need them to produce, process and market the food that will feed the world. We also need them to play their part — as entrepreneurs, service providers and wage earners — in the development and economic growth of their communities, because at least 70 per cent of the world’s poor people still live in rural areas. And we need them to lend their weight and their will to the fight for good governance and social progress at all levels.

The key to meeting the world’s future food needs – and to fighting the hunger and poverty that is concentrated in rural areas – is to create an environment that will encourage and enable young women and men to remain in their communities. The challenges of meeting future food demand, developing vibrant rural centres and promoting broad-based economic growth in developing countries depend on them. These are compelling reasons to place rural young people and smallholder agriculture at the forefront of national strategies for food security, poverty reduction and income growth.

Young people also need vocational training, apprenticeships and further education to give them relevant knowledge and skills. When basic education, training and finance are available, young rural people seize the opportunities.

Initiatives that improve the opportunities for young people to take part in decent agricultural and non-agricultural work provide larger benefits for social harmony, as well as for food security and poverty reduction.

Responding to the challenges of enhanced agricultural productivity and rural economic growth demands at least three things: investment in social and economic infrastructure in rural areas; the creation of remunerative economic opportunities for young people in agriculture and in the rural non-farm economy; and the provision of expanded opportunities for young men and women to build the capacity and skills they need to take advantage of these opportunities.

Putting young rural people first is not an option, it is an obligation. Some governments and regions have recognised this and are making commitments and taking action. The Federal Government is also taking a positive step in this noble direction by inaugurating the Youth Empowerment through Agriculture Programme, YEAP.

Beginning with a two-day workshop this week in Abuja, YEAP is intended to fashion out programmes adaptable to the youth to encourage them to invest in agriculture, with support from the government. Although two states (Lagos and Ekiti) have started youth programme in agriculture at various times, the Federal Government will work with all stakeholders to expand the scope and coverage to span the entire country.

•Dr. Oyeleye is the Special Assistant on Media and Strategy, Office of the Honourable Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development.