Empowering rural youth in West and Central Africa

Young people in Nigeria harvest rice. About 65 per cent of youth in Africa work in agriculture. ©IFAD/Andrew Esiebo/Panos
Young people in Nigeria harvest rice. About 65 per cent of youth in Africa work in agriculture. ©IFAD/Andrew Esiebo/Panos

13 September 2016 – Projections indicate that Africa will remain predominantly rural until about 2035. Rural poverty remains deep and widespread, concentrated among young people and women in the region. About 65 per cent of youth work in agriculture: only 16 per cent have waged jobs in the public and private sectors.

In the West and Central Africa region, youth unemployment, insecure land tenure, a lack of basic infrastructure, inadequate credit and insurance, and ethnic and gender disparities are all brakes on inclusive rural transformation.

On 14 September, IFAD launches its flagship publication, Rural Development Report 2016: Fostering Inclusive Rural Transformation. The report provides extensive insight into the future development of rural communities and brings together leading thinkers to analyse lessons learned from experiences across the globe.

Ides de Willebois, IFAD Director for WCA, explains the challenges and opportunities that rural people in the region face. ©IFAD/David Paqui

In the run-up to the launch of the report, Ides de Willebois, IFAD Director for WCA, explains the challenges and opportunities that rural people in the region face and how more inclusive rural transformation is the first step towards empowering rural youth and ending inequality in the region.

Q: What are some of the greatest challenges facing rural people today in WCA?

The biggest challenge is probably the sheer magnitude of unemployed youth. Over 75 per cent of the WCA population is under the age of 35 and unemployment in this age group is very high. This is exacerbated by the unequal distribution of resources and access to markets. So you have very wealthy people and very poor people. And the very poor tend to be youth and they tend to be rural. And this combination of youth, rural and poor is the result of many other issues as well, such as food insecurity because youth without resources or job prospects must be supported at a cost and if they are not supported, they will at times turn to crime or fuel insurgency." 

Q: What are the greatest opportunities for farmers in the region?

“Africa has the potential to become the world’s powerhouse in agriculture, and can play a dominant role in feeding the world. To realize that, we need leadership from African governments, and partnership with the private sector.

“Within this context, strategically, there are two things we are looking at in WCA.  The first is commodity- based value chain organization. So, focusing within countries and linking all stakeholders with a certain value chain and improving the entire chain from field to mouth. The second opportunity is regional markets. We have multiple countries that produce identical commodities, for example, cocoa, rice or cotton but we do not have a coordinated approach across countries.  In today’s world,  the means of  transportation are greatly improved from 20 years ago and the capacity to organize farmers across national borders in commodity markets  is quite remarkable.  

“Now there is a  tremendous opportunity for IFAD to help not one, but multiple countries to  invest and deliver what the market wants. The road infrastructure in WCA is improving year by year and so is trade among countries. We need to start to think more in terms of comparative advantage: what does each country and each region do well, and look beyond the national borders towards neighbouring countries for markets for those commodities. Both of these are great opportunities for smallholders and the region.”

Q: Why do you believe that rural transformation is an effective way to overcome poverty?

It's not an effective way; it is the only way to overcome poverty. We need to create rural areas in Africa where people are encouraged to invest, which are organized enough to enable people to produce and retain a surplus and reinvest. This requires infrastructure, not only physical infrastructure, but also IT infrastructure, banking infrastructure. And this type of transformation is the only thing that is going to give hope earlier  in the medium term for  rural youth. We have no other choice.”

Q: Do you have any examples of rural communities/countries in your region that have transformed because of strong agricultural policies or a commitment to rural development?

Certainly, the IFAD-supported Northern Ghana Development Programme, through the interventions of rural programmes and other complementary investments has furthered the cause of rural transformation.  IFAD's investment has enabled the establishment of  district value chain committees which bring together smallholder producers,  suppliers,  financiers and transporters  and everybody’s income is going up.  We have seen that the level of credit taken by smallholder producers grew by 400 per cent in five years. This is rural transformation. There is a similar example in Senegal which has shown very strong results. Incomes of mainly young women  increased by  200 to 400 per cent.”

Q: What do we need to do to support smallholder farmers in feeding an expanding global population, considering the 2030 Agenda “to leave no one behind”?

This is not an easy question to answer. Or maybe it is easy to answer but hard to do. First of all, we need to differentiate the markets.  In other words, figure out what markets smallholders should be targeting. Should we target markets in their own countries or export markets for cash based commodities or regional markets for either cash crops or food crops. This is the first question because selling cash crops, for example, is a source of income that moves people out of poverty. Having money in your pocket means you can buy your food.

“We have noticed that with the emerging middle class in WCA,  people are demanding higher quality food. Now this is not going to be a market for every smallholder but it will be for many. We need to figure out where the market opportunities are for each community.  And we need to be more proactive about correcting the inability of  people to sustainably access land and participate fairly in markets over time.

“We found that agricultural yields are fairly flat although some encouraging productivity increases are materializing, demonstrating that this is possible, even under very constrained conditions. One of the reasons they are not rising is because people are unable to invest and why are they  unable to invest?

"Because they cannot be sure that they will be owning that farm in a year or five years or 10 years. If we had a way to transfer ownership even temporarily or give leases that  last 25-30 years, smallholder farmers would be able to improve their yield. So protecting land tenure (and access to water) is an extremely  important link in this chain. Something that is already  happening but needs to be nurtured further is the role of ICT. We now live in a world where a smallholder producer in North Kivu can contact a buyer in Washington D.C.; this is the world we live in. Is everybody doing it? The answer is “no”. Could everybody do it? The answer is “yes”. The more we do, the greater the possibilities for transformation and inclusion will be.”

Q: How can governments in WCA draw poor and marginalized rural dwellers into the mainstream?                             

Nowhere in the WCA region do we yet have a proactive policy for youth, although most governments explicitly recognize the need and urgency to support young people, especially in rural areas. Nowhere have we found policies that have been implemented that enable access to infrastructure, or sustain medium-term access to land and water or to financial services targeted specifically at people under the age of 35. This is essential  in our region.

“We are worried about instability and fragility but we wouldn’t worry about instability and fragility if all of our young people in the region had a normal job, where they could feed themselves and build their self-esteem and work on their future. In order to do that, they need land, they need investment, they need a connection to bigger markets, and this requires policies that respond to  their needs.”

Q: What is IFAD doing to solve some of the challenges such as insecure land tenure, lack of basic infrastructure, inadequate credit and insurance and ethnic and gender disparities?

Over the last two years, every new investment in the WCA region has been targeted  towards youth, and all of our projects are gender specific and include infrastructure support. We finance several dedicated rural finance programmes to build capacities of financial institutions in rural areas to provide easy access to financial products (savings, credit, insurance, leasing etc.) to rural people. Within projects/programmes, when required, we conduct policy dialogue following up with the Government on matters that require improvements at policy level, based on the actual results and experiences from projects.

“Based on our 40-year experience of working with the people and governments in WCA, we have gained a fair understanding of the issues and we are working to address them. These issues often have structural, institutional and political contexts and therefore are usually not easily resolved and take time and commitment from Governments. Beyond project investments, we also have grants investments. Currently, we are about to launch a grant which is a facility to research and identify tools and policies to support youth in the region addressing exactly  land tenure and access to finance as well as equity and equality.”

Q: What policies can governments implement to improve the lives of poor rural people?

“The biggest one at this point would be to enable rural people to invest. That requires access to land and water with some form of longer term security of ownership to grant rural people, women and youth access to land which they can cultivate and develop. It is this kind of security over the means of production which will encourage people to invest. Beyond this, we need financial services.

“When I was studying many years ago, I learned that rural development depends on three things. One: the rural sector has to produce a surplus. Two: the surplus has to be converted into cash. Three: the cash has to be stored in the rural areas in order to be reinvested. If you have these three elements, you will have rural development. So the rolling out of financial services to enable people to save money in rural areas is equally critical as access to resources that can produce the surplus.”

About the Report

The Rural Development Report, IFAD’s flagship publication, is a rallying call to policymakers and development practitioners to end poverty and hunger in all its forms everywhere. The report looks at how to bring rural people into the economic mainstream and how to transform rural areas so that development is not only inclusive but also socially, economically and environmentally sustainable.

Stay tuned for the launch of the report on 14 September and follow the conversation online at #ruraltransformation.