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Publication | 14 December 2021

Jobs for Rural Youth - The Role of Local Food Economies

Today, the highest proportion of youth lives in Africa and Asia with the majority of them in rural areas. In Africa, every year 10 to 12 million youth enter the workforce while only about 3 million find jobs. Rural youth are particularly more vulnerable to take up poor quality jobs, and most of them are seeking jobs outside of agriculturePotential job opportunities for rural youth exist, however.

Growing populations, urbanisation, and rising incomes of the middle class are increasing demand for more diverse and value added agricultural and food products in Africa and developing Asia. This rise in food demand could boost job creation along the local agri-food value chain if adequate investments were made to build efficient local food systems.

The challenge with food economies in Africa and developing Asia lies on several fronts. First, low pay and poor working conditions make it difficult for farmers to sustain their livelihoods and to attract new entrants to agriculture. Second, the current trajectory of growth in agriculture is environmentally unsustainable, with intensive and extensive production practices leading to deforestation, soil erosion and resource depletion. Third, participation in agri-food global value chains (GVCs) by developing countries is increasing, but gains on domestic value added and spillover-effects on employment creation have been limited.

The study explores to what extent local food economies could respond to employment needs of youth in developing countries. First, an assessment of the present employment structure within the food economy is done using household-level data for seven countries in two regions and at different stages of development (Thailand and Viet Nam in Asia; Namibia, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia in Africa). An employment forecast for 2030 in the food economy is made for selected African and Asian countries. Finally, a review of different local food systems found in advanced economies presents pros and cons about local and short food supply chain models and the extent they can reconcile economic, social (jobs) and environmental objectives.

In the countries studied, food economy jobs take up an important share of total employment, especially in low- and lower middle-income countries where it ranges from around 50% to 90%. Young people (aged 15-29) constitute an important share (up to 45%) of employment held in the food economy, while most of these jobs are in the agriculture production segment. The food service segment becomes an important share of the employment in the food economy in middle-income countries. There is also a strong gender dimension in the distribution of youth employment within the food economy, with young men more likely to be engaged in agriculture while young women are more likely to work in the downstream segments (trade and services) of the food economy. The majority of food economy jobs are located in rural areas, particularly in low-income countries, but this share decreases as countries reach higher levels of development. In South Africa and Namibia, the majority of youth food economy jobs are actually held by urban youth. In all countries studied (except in Uganda), urban youth in the food economy have jobs in the downstream segments of the food economy, with a non-negligible share of them also working in agriculture.

Jobs in the food economy are often informal and vulnerable. Youth working in the food economy are more exposed to informal employment than adults, but also when compared to youth in other sectors. Within the food economy, the share of informal youth workers is highest in agriculture production. The share of vulnerable jobs is also higher in the food economy, with the majority of youth employed as contributing family workers or own account workers. Earnings for youth in the food economy are lower than for youth in other sectors, with the lowest earnings in the agriculture production segment.

The level of skills mismatch is also high (both over- or under- qualification) in this sector, which has implications for youth job satisfaction. Youth working in downstream segments tend to have higher levels of education and earn a higher income than those working in agriculture, signalling the potential for the processing and service sectors of the food economy to create higher skilled and better paying jobs. Food economy job forecast for 2030 done for 11 African cuntries (adding Côte d'Ivoire, Senegal, Niger, Mali, Ghana and Nigeria to the initial five countries) and the two Asian countries shows an increase in the total number of jobs in the food economy. In sub-Saharan Africa, a total of 115 million jobs in the food economy is estimated for 2030, a 20% increase from 2019. That makes 12 million additional jobs in agriculture and 8 million additional jobs in the downstream segments. The segments experiencing the highest increase are food processing by 21%, food marketing by 39% and food-away-from home by 43%. In the two Asian countries, overall food economy jobs are expected to increase only slightly. The premise for the forecast was that income growth and rapid urbanisation will hasten the transition towards a higher consumption of meat, fruits and vegetables, compared to cereals, requiring a large shift in outputs. The estimation takes into account GDP growth forecast, urbanisation rate and employment elasticities for each of the food economy segments.

Considering the challenges current agriculture production practices and difficulties in upgrading participation in agri-food GVCs, the study reviews several local food systems and short food supply business models that have an increasing uptake in advanced economies and looks at their relevance in terms of livelihoods for smallholder farmers, quality of jobs and environmental impact. All examples promote local development and try to keep as common values such as fair remuneration to farmers, short supply chains, job creation, social cohesion, organic or other environmentally-friendly production practices. Some models succeed better than others. Agricultural co-operatives, community-supported agriculture, food co-operatives, e-distribution platforms, public procurement and territorial branding and certification schemes were reviewed. Food co-operatives (or “food co-ops”) that have a multi-stakeholder membership is what seems to work the best in terms of scalability, environmental impact and job creation. Replicating these models in developing countries, however, would require strategic development choices, significant investment in agri-food supply chain infrastructure, regulatory reforms and skills strategies.

Building efficient local food systems in developing countries that will create jobs for youth has important economic, social and environmental policy implications. Improving the livelihoods of farmers and smallholder producers is an urgent issue to be addressed. This could be done by supporting production methods through technology transfers; investing in infrastructure to improve rural-urban linkages and access to markets both physical and virtual; and creating efficient phytosanitary and hygiene regulations applicable to smallholder producers and local small and medium entreprises (SMEs) in agri-food processing and services. Job creation in the food economy will require narrowing the current skills gap and mismatch in this sector through vocational training but also through more emphasis in agricultural research and development in regular school curricula. Supporting the growth of local SMEs will be critical for wage job creation. Ensuring regular dialogue with the private sector and local SMEs will provide better information about labour market needs and allow for adapting training and curricula. Finally, environmentally-friendly food production and distribution models need to be promoted via organic or agroecological farming practices and technological innovations, as well as by raising awareness around sustainable consumption and values around local and regional products.