Geneva — Economic growth remains robust in African countries, but the region has seen a steady rise in the number of extremely poor people, and their concentration in rural areas.
Two thirds of Africa's population live and work in rural areas, which offer huge land surfaces, and agriculture represents 65 per cent of jobs in Sub-Sahara.
Yet, rural areas have been undervalued by governments, international development lenders and policy advisers. As a result, per capita food production has barely grown over the last 50 years, agriculture only represents 17 percent of Sub-Sahara's GDP, and its productivity is low and even declining. It's not surprising that over 60 per cent of rural people live in extreme poverty, and many flee to the cities, where they usually swell the ranks of the unemployed or the informal workforce.
Boosting agriculture and building around it a strong rural economy is crucial for Africa. Done right, it would create millions of much needed jobs, as well as wealth, inclusion, food security, crisis resilience, and social and political peace.
This reality is not lost on African leaders. The African Union's summit held in Addis Ababa on 21-28 January 2014 had as its lead theme "Transforming Africa's Agriculture: Harnessing Opportunities for Inclusive Growth and Sustainable Development", and launched 2014 as the Year of Agriculture and Food Security. Participating heads of States and Government adopted a Common Position on the Post-2015 Development Agenda. They also decided to hold a summit in September to review progress achieved since the Ouagadougou Plan of Action was launched ten years ago, and to adopt a roadmap to 2024. Agriculture and rural transformation feature prominently in both the 2004 Ouagadougou Plan of Action and the African Common Position on Post-2015.
The ILO has actively engaged in rural work since the 1920s, with growing attention to Africa. In 2008, the International Labour Conference adopted a resolution on Rural Employment for Poverty Reduction, which led the way to an ILO Rural Employment and Decent Work Programme (2009-13), and the declaration in 2013 of "Decent Work in the Rural Economy" as an Area of Critical Importance for the Organization.
The need to Recognise Rural Potential
A key lesson from ILO rural work is recognizing that rural communities have much potential, and that investment can empower them through integrated approaches.
This should start with basic physical and social infrastructures such as roads, energy, education and health facilities. Investments should also target relevant skills development and entrepreneurship support, including through cooperatives and innovative financial mechanisms. They should also ensure proper occupational safety and health, social protection and basic rights.
Many youth are put off by rural jobs that are dangerous, exhausting, badly paid and ill-protected, and by limited infrastructure in rural areas.
Promoting rural areas also means combining agriculture with industrial and service activities to stimulate synergies and diversification, and to seize new opportunities in ICT, tourism, bio-technologies, environment protection and renewable energy generation, for instance.
Integrated approaches also include promoting linkages among public and private stakeholders, developing rural workers' and entrepreneurs' structures, encouraging dialogue among them and with authorities, and giving capacities and a voice to youth and women, who are the true engines of rural innovation and growth.
All important is disseminating the many winning practices. A good example is the Songhaï Centres in Benin where productive enterprises run activities in farming, processing, handicrafts, marketing, energy production, irrigation, repair, recycling and other services, with strong emphasis on holistic approaches, self-reliance, research and training. The Rwandan Telecentre Network is another example of good practice, with rural telecentres that provide IT services but are also delivery hubs where individuals, companies and government can advertise, sell, buy and exchange products and services from e-training to banking, insurance, taxation, healthcare, electricity and information.
"Rural" should become a pivotal part of national and international development agendas. The sense of urgency to tackle agricultural and rural transformation expressed at the African Union Summit augurs well.