Africa’s “youth bulge” represents both an enormous challenge and a tantalizing opportunity for the continent. With over 60 percent of Africans under the age of 35, governments are under increasing pressure to grasp the “demographic dividend” youth represent to boost agricultural productivity, enhance food security, and expand economic opportunities for young men and women. Each year, about 10-12 million young Africans aged 15-24 enter the labor market, but only 3.1 million formal wage jobs are generated, pushing millions of youth into low paying and precarious informal employment.
The COVID-19 crisis only heightens the urgency. The International Labor Organization warns that the pandemic could result in a “lockdown generation”—millions of young people who are experiencing the social and economic consequences of the pandemic and who are not working, attending school, or engaging in vocational training.
A foundational piece of Africa’s rural and agricultural transformation must be ensuring that youth have secure land rights on which to stake their future and invest in agriculture and farm-related productive activities. If properly harnessed, Africa’s nearly 420 million youth—including more than 200 million who reside in rural areas—will be the continent’s greatest asset and its engine to grow agricultural productivity and food security while reducing poverty.
Access to land is both a critical component and a fundamental barrier to productive youth engagement in agriculture. In fact, research shows that landlessness and lack of economic opportunities are important drivers of youth migration and farming career decisions in both land-scarce and land-abundant countries in sub-Saharan Africa.
Contrary to the popular perception that youth are not interested in farming, a 2017 Rural21 survey of 10,000 young Africans—ages 18-35—living in rural areas revealed that nearly a quarter of them are enthusiastic about work in agriculture. There is room to expand youth interest in farming with the right incentives, and securing land rights for youth will be a necessary part of any sustainable growth strategy.
The challenge of youth land rights
Only about 10 percent of land in sub-Saharan Africa is formally documented. Much of the remaining 90 percent is held under customary land tenure systems, where rural youth access land primarily through inheritance and customary land allocation.
But customary land systems are frequently dominated by conservative traditional leaders who favor adult men, making it challenging for young men and nearly impossible for young women to gain secure land access, use, and ownership. For youth (mostly young men) who can inherit land, improved life expectancies and a lack of social safety nets delay intergenerational land transfers. On top of this, inherited land parcels are often of poor quality and too fragmented to support a sustainable income.
Young rural women and men can also access land through government land redistribution and rehabilitation programs, leasing, purchases, rentals, gifts, and sharecropping. However, there are multiple constraints hampering youth access to land through the market and government allocations: many youth lack resources to buy or rent land; formal land sale and rental markets are often under-developed; awareness of and legal protections for youth land rights are inadequate; and state-sponsored land redistribution programs often fail to account for the needs of youth.
Land scarcity compounds challenges for low income youth, especially in densely populated regions. One estimate shows that 91 percent of Africa’s uncultivated arable land is concentrated in just nine countries, with increasing land scarcity in most African countries.
The rise in the number of medium and large-scale farms controlled by urban elites and investors, increased land prices, and the ravages of climate change will further exacerbate challenges for youth.
Engage multiple levels of decision-making to address youth land rights
Although steep, the obstacles to youth land rights are not insurmountable. Organizations are noting promising progress toward youth land rights. Landesa, for example, is working with various stakeholders to strengthen young men’s and women’s lands rights by reviewing land laws and policies through a youth lens, engaging and collaborating with youth-led groups, and advancing youth engagement in land governance processes and land dispute resolution. In Liberia, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Tanzania, we have conducted detailed land tenure assessments, trained diverse stakeholders and local partners on existing land laws, and engaged local champions to advance youth land rights awareness and intergenerational collaboration on land matters.
But more work is needed at the local, country and regional level. While the status, needs, opportunities, and experiences of rural youth differ across the African continent, fundamental actions are needed to secure youth land rights:
- Researchers must gather more and better data, disaggregated by gender, age, class, and status, on how rural youth access and use land. Improving our understanding of youth and land can help shape more inclusive land policies, improve land rental markets and increase youth engagement in agriculture.
- Governments must reform discriminatory customary laws and ensure that land laws and policies acknowledge and account for youth. Governments must also design and implement inclusive land documentation and land markets and consider land allocation for young women and men when implementing land reform and redistribution programs.
- Civil society organizations must increase awareness and understanding of youth land rights in law and practice, promote youth engagement in land governance processes, and articulate how securing rural youth land rights benefits youth, families, communities and nations.
- Regional and global development agencies must implement frameworks like the African Union Declaration on Land Issues and Challenges in Africa, the UN Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure, and land related provisions in the Sustainable Development Goals.
Stronger land rights do offer tantalizing potential to boost agricultural productivity, generate inclusive and sustainable economic growth and create meaningful employment opportunities for millions. By improving youth access and rights to land, governments can make good on Africa’s “demographic dividend” and help a generation of young Africans realize the dignity and security found in meaningful, productive work.
Tizai Mauto, Landesa Land Tenure & Youth Specialist, provides land policy analysis and implementation expertise on rural land tenure security and the importance of youth access to land for improving livelihoods and promoting economic development. He has previously worked on youth-focused programming with UN-Habitat and the Global Land Tool Network and as an urban planner for the government of Zimbabwe.
Sources: African Development Bank Group, Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Front Page Africa, International Fund for Agricultural Development, International Labour Organization, Landesa, Rural21, United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, The World Bank
Photo Credit: Feed the Future Land Tenure Assistance Activity, USAID Tanzania, courtesy of Riaz Jahanpour for USAID/Digital Development Communications.