Climbing up trees or sitting on shoulders?


GraciaBy Richard Powell

Africa has the youngest population in the world, with more than one-third of the population in Sub-Saharan Africa aged between 10 and 24.  By 2025 the number of young people in this age group in the sub-region is expected to increase to 436, and to 605 million by 2050.

For many, there is a dichotomy in how the future role played by this significant percentage of the continent’s population is seen: on the one hand, among the pessimists it is that of a ‘ticking time bomb’ waiting to explode; among the more optimistic, it is that of a generation of opportunity.

Traditionally, in many parts of Africa there has been a negative perception of the capabilities of the young, with an expectation that they should defer to the wisdom and experience of their elders.  As I listened to the charismatic humanitarian, and former Mozambican Minister for Education, Graça Machel, deliver her keynote address on women and children in Africa to the 4th RUFORUM Biennial conference, I recalled some illustrative, adverse traditional sayings:
“What an old man sees sitting down, a young man cannot see standing up” (from the Ibo ethnic group, Nigeria).
“An old man sitting on a stool can see farther than a young man who has climbed a tree” (from the Kikuyu ethnic group, Kenya).

Despite being the future of the continent, the young face multiple challenges, with many either unemployed or employed in low paid, often insecure jobs with minimal hope of advancement.  If their needs are not addressed, they risk being a lost generation, whose talent and abilities would have been wasted.

In 2009 African leaders met in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to try and defuse the threat posed by the youth unemployment time bomb, declaring 2009-18 the ‘African Youth Decade’ and promising to mobilize resources, including from the private sector.  The World Bank proposed a jobs strategy paying more attention to rural development, with investment in agriculture, while in May 2012 the United Nations Development Programme released its first ever Africa Human Development Report in which it contended that a situation in which African governments spend more money on the military than on agriculture is unsustainable.

The importance of agriculture among youth and women was echoed by Mrs Machel, who emphasised the Year of Agriculture and Food Security in Africa.  “The future of Africa is in its youth and the young are telling us some very disturbing things,” she remarked.  “Every month this year, more than ten thousand, often poorly educated, young people, after months of dangerous travel across Africa, have climbed into unseaworthy boats and attempted to gain illegal entry into the European Union.  Many have perished; most are simply returned home devastated by their failure. At the other end of the education spectrum, almost any hospital, or research institute in Europe or the United States will have talented Africans as key long term members of staff.”

Critical to addressing this challenge is the political leadership needed to advance the agenda.  However, Mrs Machel recalled the words of one doctoral African student who had returned back to the continent following his studies:

“The weather is always almost perfect in Africa – except the politicians!  Hopefully there shall be another better generation of this species in Africa one day!  There are some places that have come good – but more could be done and faster … A continent where over 38 countries out of 54 depend on food aid when they are sitting on good agricultural land.  Something must be wrong somewhere big time!”

She argued that in order to negate the need for food aid on the continent, African leaders need to recognise and invest significantly in agriculture, especially smallholder agriculture, which has been “ignored and downgraded for much of the last century.”

Central to this agenda, and given the aging nature of those directly involved in production as well as the support areas of science, finance, and marketing, it is critical that the young are nurtured into the agricultural sector, retaining skills in rural areas that would otherwise have been lost by urban and international migration.

As an optimist, Mrs Machel sees the opportunity posed by the young and their potential contribution to the transformation of the agricultural sectors of African countries, a transformation that will entail two key elements: (i) the building of the science base, and (ii) ensuring the creation of value chains that enable farmers to access that science base and to be fairly rewarded for their labours.

Moreover, such changes are premised on substantial investment in not only in the training of its youth but, importantly, in creating the attractive career opportunities for them to stay and use their skills in Africa.  This requires what she referred to as the ‘new African university’, in which “the poor and disadvantaged have ownership and which works in partnership with them to build an inclusive society where the rapid advancement of the economically disadvantaged is the norm and not the exception, where the young seek to build their lives in Africa and not flee to other continents, and where new knowledge is quickly and efficiently transferred into widespread practice.”

It is a model that has been championed by RUFORUM, with its students working in partnership with farmers, coupled by longer term, community-based development initiatives that seek to bind universities closer to their core stakeholders.  It is the kind of thinking the continent needs.  Instead of mocking those youth who struggle to climb trees to view what their elders can, perhaps those elders should help them sit on their shoulders to see better.

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