Youth make up by far the largest age group across the African continent, where nearly 35% of Africans are between the ages of 15 and 34. In Liberia, this so-called youth bulge is even more pronounced, as over 70% of the population is younger than 35.
By Dr. Emmanuel Urey, Contributing Writer
As the children of Africa grow into working age, available jobs aren’t keeping pace. To keep up with the continent-wide youth bulge, Africa must create about 12 million new jobs annually. Currently, it is only producing about one-third of that.
Consequently, unemployment figures among Africa’s youth are high: roughly 60% are unemployed or vulnerably employed due to a lack of available jobs. Many young workers are pushed into informal employment, including as farm laborers, where their potential earnings are limited. This is especially true in rural areas, where off-farm work opportunities are scarce.
Agriculture can transform rural economies
Transforming Liberia’s agriculture sector is the incontrovertible choice to transform the rural economy. Consider that many of the country’s youth living in rural areas are already engaged in farm work informally, whether on family farms or as laborers. What’s missing for most youth is the chance to pursue a farm-based career – an opportunity that begins with secure land rights.
Land is the foundation of the rural economy and the essential ingredient for youth to participate fully in agriculture. With secure rights to land, instead of working for low wages on someone else’s land, youth can invest in their own land and labor to grow a farm-based livelihood.
Land rights matter for youth and Africa’s greater development. They can be pivotal in turning the continent’s youth bulge into a demographic dividend, spurring economic growth on the continent for decades to come.
However, youth face a myriad of obstacles to owning and accessing land. Inheritance is an unreliable means for obtaining land, and frequently leads to intergenerational tension and disputes. Because of their limited financial resources, youth are typically unable to purchase or lease land of their own.
Land governance and management decision-making often excludes youth from participation. Female youth face compounded barriers to land rights, due to traditional power hierarchies and notions of land as a “male” domain. Female youth face additional exclusion from land ownership or management participation.
Moving toward secure land rights for youth
While these challenges are pervasive, securing youth land rights is an achievable goal. Liberia has made great strides – the national government passed a landmark piece of legislation in 2018. Hailed as one of the most progressive land laws in sub-Saharan Africa, the Land Rights Act (LRA) established legally guaranteed land rights for all Liberians (previously, almost 80% of the population lacked legally recognized land rights) and includes specific protections for youth and women’s land rights.
The LRA lays a strong foundation for secure youth land rights in Liberia. We must now make use of this opportunity and push for youth-specific implementation of the law.
Civil society organizations (CSOs) must act to raise awareness of youth land rights among youth and broader communities. Civil society is also well-positioned to assist youth in pursuit of their rights to own land. Facilitating youth trainings, forming youth-led community groups, and building enthusiasm for agriculture will all be instrumental in this effort.
We must also focus on increasing youth access to resources to incentivize them to engage in agriculture. Aside from land, youth will benefit from agricultural inputs and trainings that will set them up for success in the agricultural sector.
Fortunately, some of this important work is already underway. Liberian CSOs like the Development Education Network Liberia and Foundations for Community Initiatives are working to strengthen youth land rights, through trainings that build youth enthusiasm in agriculture, and community sensitization efforts to elevate youth voices in discussions and decision-making around land. Giving Liberia’s youth a seat at the table when it comes to land is an important first step in guaranteeing their rights to it.
The Liberian government can promote access to land for youth living in rural areas, with a specific focus on female youth. As a starting point, the government can set out to implement and enforce the LRA, ensuring that its provisions benefit all Liberians. Youth in rural areas will also need better access to markets to enjoy productive agricultural employment and the government can institute programs connecting youth to reliable markets to transform the rural economy.
Youth in Liberia have the potential to be an enormous asset to the national economy. The foundation has been laid – now we must work on all levels to ensure Liberia’s youth bulge becomes a demographic dividend.