In Sub-Saharan Africa, more than 60 percent of a 1.2 billion population are under the age of 25.
Supporting them in obtaining decent jobs, especially in rural areas, is one of the great challenges we are facing in pursuit of a Zero Hunger world and the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals.
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has rolled out projects from Benin to Zanzibar that increase the engagement, entrepreneurship and employment opportunities for young people.
African governments are on board, having pledged in the 2014 Malabo Declaration to adopt an accelerated and inclusive agricultural growth model placing high priority on youth participation.
The key driver for improved youth employment is access – to capital, credit, training, tenure, natural resources and, in particular, Information and Communication Technologies (ICT).
In fact, the Internet offers concrete hopes for innovation and prosperity, which, when applied to agriculture, may free the sector of its stigma - drudgery and poor income prospects - to make it more attractive for young people.
While the ways to prioritize youth, even by implementing preferential policies, will vary from place to place, we can all learn from every success story.
FAO worked with the Nigerian government on developing its Youth Employment in Agriculture Programme, which has already offered training to more than 7 000 rural youth as well as provided starter packs to create their own agribusinesses.
The program is also mobilising public investments that will ultimately benefit more than 700 000 rural young people over the next five years.
FAO has further contributed to Senegal’s Rural Youth Employment Policy - which aims to foster the creation of more than 100 000 jobs per year - by helping set up a series of small rural hubs where youth can learn about farming, food processing and marketing.
The Government was also able to launch a National Observatory of Rural Employment, a dynamic online hub allowing rural youth, producers and development partners to monitor the national labour market and get information and data regarding agricultural products and trends.
In Guinea-Bissau, FAO found that introducing pilot programmes for aquaculture was a way to give local youth—many of whom had tried to migrate to cities—an important role with multiple benefits, producing additional income, better nutrition and fertilizer for cassava farmers.
Now the initiative is expanding by building hatcheries, creating more jobs and a value chain that can be scaled up.
FAO is also a strong supporter of the increasingly important Rwanda Youth in Agribusiness Forum, which plays a critical advocacy role for its members and facilitates the inclusion of youth in the country’s economic and social transformation.
Nevertheless, we cannot expect that such a high number of young people entering the labour market every year (nearly 10 million) will find employment in the traditional agricultural sectors.
We need to explore all segments related to rural activities. For that, we need to promote a new kind of rural transformation: an urbanization of rural areas equipped with basic services such as education, health, electricity, internet access and so on.
The urbanization of rural areas also means the adoption of a territorial approach focused on strengthening the physical, economic, social and political links between small urban centers and their surrounding rural areas.
Infrastructure investments, especially in roads and storage capacity, would help to connect producers, agro-industrial processors, and other segments of the value chains. This can create a lot of jobs and opportunities for youth.
The African continent is also home to a large number of family famers with very small sized plots cut off from markets.
It is very important that these people be organized into cooperatives or other forms of association. Otherwise, it will be impossible to integrate them into modern agrifood chains.
Cooperatives and other associations are the only way for providing family farmers with technical assistance, capacity building, financial resources and access to modern technologies.
Farmers have for some time benefited from ICT to access price and weather information. Emerging uses range from weather-based crop insurance and traceable certification for specialty markets to high-resolution soil maps and tractor rentals for smallholders.
Crop disease management is another promising ICT frontier. FAO has developed a new app allowing smallholders to detect Fall Armyworm, an invasive species that poses a grave risk to maize, a major staple crop in Africa.
Nutrition, biodiversity and climate challenges all point to an increased potential of digitally-leveraged applications with positive impacts on rural employment.
Information technology can be a strong multiplier in the effort to achieve the transformation needed in rural areas.
Rural youth in Africa have plenty of hopes and dreams with enormous opportunities across the continent to realize them. Efforts of all stakeholders in this direction are definitely a big part of a sustainable future.
José Graziano da Silva is FAO Director-General