Sustainable agriculture can be key to reducing youth migration in Africa

Agriculture is Africa’s largest employer and a possible solution to its migration problem

By Festus Akinnifesi
Last Updated: Wednesday 14 March 2018

South Sudan refugees dwelling among local community at Bidibidi settlement in northern Uganda. Credit: Deborah Duveskog, FAO, Oct, 2017Migration involves movement of people between geographical locations within or between countries. It is part of the dynamic process of change in every society, and has always been an important component of rural or structural transformation. As economies undergo transformation, the movement of people in search of better employment opportunities within or between countries is inevitable. Contrary to widely-held generalisation, there is greater migration happening within than outside Africa. Sub-Saharan Africa accounts for about 15 percent of all international migrants in 2015. That is usually due to high rate of rural unemployment, lack of access to land and financial resources and services. This article examines the prospect of sustainable agriculture as an important pathway for reducing migration in Africa.

Why young Africansare migrating from rural areas

Migration can be voluntary or involuntary, temporary, medium to long term, or even permanent, cyclic or seasonal. It may be triggered by choice, necessity, or a forced migration. While economic migration is often warranted by necessity, in search of better livelihoods opportunities. People generally migrate due to political economy, demographic shifts, and environmental reasons and other socioeconomic considerations.

In extreme cases forced migration may occur due to human-made crises and conflicts, as well as due to natural disasters, environmental degradation and climate change. The circumstances within which people make decisions to migrate depend on the nature of the drivers or the combination of them. Predicting future migration is difficult and requires an understanding of the factors motivating migration flows.

The migration-sustainable agriculture nexus

An effective response to the migration challenge requires looking at it from the agricultural lens. Migration can lead to demographic shifts, labour deficit and feminisation of agriculture in low-income countries, with its associated agricultural burden being borne by women and girls, disrupting generational transfer of agricultural heritage and indigenous knowledge systems. On the other hand, migration can create higher agricultural labour wage due to scarcity, balanced access to resources and diversified income sources through flow of remittances. However, rural-urban migration is not the solution to reducing poverty. Efforts to transform agriculture and rural development can pay more dividends.

Some agricultural solutions to address migration challenge

  • Make agriculture more attractive and profitable to youth: Youngsters are moving away from farming because they consider it unattractive, labour-intensive and characterised by low return to labour. Agriculture is Africa’s largest employer. It offers effective pathways for economic growth and create employment for young people compared to other sectors. To realize its potential, Africa’s agriculture has to shift from being “poor people’s occupation” to a more profitable and less labour-intensive one, better esteemed job and career opportunity for young people. This requires a systemic transformation including re-orienting the school curricular towards sustainable agricultural transformation and food systems that creates agri-businesses and employment opportunities along the value chain. 
  • Natural resources restoration: Depletion of sources of natural resource base for certain businesses can translate to livelihood threat leading to migration. A good example is the drying up of 30-year-old Lake Chad, which is now a food crisis hotspot. One way to address migration is to combat its root cause before it happens rather than post-factum interventions. Measures to address natural resource degradation and climate change may also help improve livelihoods, create jobs and reduce migration. For instance, the Great Green Wall initiative in Africa.
  • Moving to sustainable migration response: In emergency situations “humanitarian” response is crucial to reduce immediate shocks, saves lives and enhance livelihood recovery. Beyond the short term, applying a more inclusive and holistic approach that transitions to sustainable response is imperative. Sustainable agriculture and food systems can effectively contribute to reducing migration from origin and lessen the burden on the host country or destination. This includes investing in capacity development, infrastructure, and re-orienting migrants to build their resilience through creating sustainable, productive and profitable agricultural and off-farm jobs opportunities.
  • Transforming agriculture along the value chain: Most of the agricultural export by Africa is raw materials or primary products. To create decent jobs, Africa has to move up the agricultural value chain by improving quality, and strengthen market and create agricultural-based industries. Post-harvest losses have to be reduced and processing raw materials to secondary or final products are vital to achieving economic growth.
  • Transforming urban agriculture and food systems: The link between migration and urbanisation in Africa is rather complex. Migration can exert considerable pressures on urban food systems, infrastructures and public services. Strengthening and transforming urban agriculture and the food systems can also help address part of the challenges, including contributing to urban food security and jobs creation.
  • Governance and policies: African governments need to embrace a more holistic planning on migration rather than short-term palliatives. There is a need to scale up best practices that sustainably improve productivity, and reduce risks through diversification, social protection and long-term investment that integrate migration and climate change into national development and poverty reduction programmes.

In sum, efforts to address migration have often been detached from sustainable agricultural transformation. Linking migration to sustainable agriculture and food systems (including urban agriculture), and natural resource management can contribute to economic growth and improve food security and rural livelihoods of both the originating and host country or community. This requires a holistic approach, underpinned by effective policy and responsive governance that focuses on long-term investment in inclusive capacity development, building infrastructure and developing the value chain.

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