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Manufacturing, not just agriculture

With 43 per cent of Nigeria’s population under the age of 15 and 330 million young Africans set to enter the job market in the…

With 43 per cent of Nigeria’s population under the age of 15 and 330 million young Africans set to enter the job market in the coming years, it’s clear that creating jobs for these youth is a pressing issue.

While agriculture and informal sector jobs in the agri-food system have been a major source of employment for many young Africans, less than a third are projected to find wage jobs in these sectors.

Smallholder farming is important in Nigeria, as it can determine whether millions of young Nigerians are productively engaged in agriculture and the informal sector or join the ranks of the unemployed or underemployed poor. However, we need to be systemic in our departure from smallholder agriculture and look to non-farm ways of improving people’s lives as the world continues to transform through various technologies.

While I value smallholder farmers and their agriculture, I believe that we need to plan and execute a transition from farm to non-farm jobs.

Japan and South Korea are examples of countries that were once predominantly smallholder farming societies but are now giant manufacturing and technology-driven service economies. They achieved this transformation by devising great policies and public investments in infrastructure, agricultural research breakthroughs, and extension services to help farmers benefit from new technologies. As a result, smallholder farmers in these countries increased their productivity and incomes, supporting the demand for nonfarm businesses and the growth of employment opportunities off the farm.

Some argue that African leaders should give up on smallholder agriculture and instead favour commercialised large-scale agriculture. However, large-scale agriculture is usually an extremely weak employer of labour, providing only about one worker per every one hundred hectares cultivated of grain production. This is not a viable solution for the massive unemployed population in many African countries.

It’s important to acknowledge that the majority of the population in Nigeria and other African countries are unskilled and semiskilled rural people primarily engaged in farming. While they may wish to move into office jobs, their levels of education and skills may prevent this from happening quickly. We need to provide unwavering support for smallholder farmers so that they are able to participate in and contribute to the region’s economic transition rather than be marginalised by it.

In order to transform our economy, we need to support the migration from farm to non-farm sectors and from rural to urban areas. However, this will only happen as fast as educational advances and growth in non-farm job opportunities will allow. Even as we slowly urbanise, smallholder agriculture will remain fundamental to absorbing much of Africa’s burgeoning young labour force into gainful employment.

We must look beyond this, however, and be prepared to leapfrog in order to gain meaningful and world-class development. By making agriculture profitable rather than subsidised, government policies and public investment can make agriculture much more attractive to young people.

Agriculture has historically been the precursor to a manufacturing-based economy. This is because agriculture provides the raw materials needed for the production of manufactured goods. In the early stages of development, a country’s economy is usually driven by agriculture, as it is the primary sector that provides the necessary resources for the population’s subsistence and for the industrial sector.

Nigeria cannot afford to still be in its early stages of development and must thus engineer and accelerate this transition to a manufacturing-based economy. This is because a manufacturing-based economy has the potential to provide more sustainable economic growth than an agricultural-based economy. In a manufacturing-based economy, the value-added products of agriculture can be transformed into higher-value goods, thereby creating more job opportunities and generating higher incomes.

Furthermore, and quite simply a manufacturing-based economy also has the potential to diversify Nigeria’s economy, reducing the country’s reliance on oil exports. This diversification will help to reduce the impact of external shocks on Nigeria’s economy and provide a more stable economic environment.

Accelerating the transition to a manufacturing-based economy in Nigeria will require further and more significant investments in infrastructure and human capital development. This includes building modern transportation networks, establishing robust power grids, investing in education and training, and improving the business environment.

No other sector can generate nearly as many well-paying jobs as manufacturing can and certainly, no other sector can help us cover our massive trade deficit in goods, which is only rising. Therefore, let’s consider manufacturing, as much as, if not more than agriculture going forward.