25/06/2014 13:52 BST | Updated 25/08/2014 06:59 BST

Youth Unemployment: Challenge or Opportunity?

2014 is the AU year of Agriculture and Food Security. As African leaders gather at the end of this month in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea, for the 23rd African Union (AU) Summit, they have an opportunity to make good on their 2003 promise to allocate ten percent of their budgets to agriculture - a sector known to be highly effective at reducing poverty. It is also time that leaders turn their challenges of food insecurity, poverty, malnutrition and unemployment into opportunities. Agriculture is a good place to start.

Africa's ballooning young population

Investment in entrepreneurship along the agribusiness value chain (that is, the entire pathway food travels along from farm to fork) particularly amongst Africa's growing youth population, can do more than achieve sustainable food and nutrition security for the continent - it can create jobs, wealth and robust livelihoods.

Youth unemployment is a challenge that confronts all governments around the world, even in the UK. Just this week, leader of the Labour Party, Ed Miliband, made headlines by discussing youth and the role of vocational training for young people.

In the case of sub-Saharan Africa, the figures are staggering: already, the region has the youngest population in the world aged 14 to 24 and by 2050, it will be home to roughly half of the additional global population, an additional 265 million people.

These projections are alarming as currently more than 70% of young people already live on less than US$2 per day and youth underemployment is rising. Young people from rural areas are also rapidly migrating into cities seeking mainly informal employment outside of agriculture that is placing unsustainable pressures on Africa's urban labour markets.

Youth view agriculture as outdated

Despite increased attention to and financing for African agriculture over the last decade, the potential of the agricultural sector remains largely untapped. In part, this is due to the perceived unattractiveness of the sector: young people regard agriculture as outdated, back-breaking and poorly paid work. Are they right?

Perhaps in part, but the employment and entrepreneurial opportunities along the agribusiness value chain are in fact plentiful. Ranging from research and development of new agricultural techniques and technologies all the way along the value chain to marketing and retailing of food products, the jobs and opportunities exist. Though in order to really flourish, they need support in the form of education, finance and a dose of political leadership.

Small and Growing

This week, the Montpellier Panel of European and African experts in agriculture and development, launched a new report "Small and Growing: Entrepreneurship in African Agriculture." It argues that it is time for African governments to seize the opportunity of an abundant, young workforce and increased demand for food, and turn agriculture into a profitable and stimulating sector.

Harnessing and enabling the entrepreneurial skill and spirit of rural people, particularly the growing young population, should therefore be at the forefront of Africa's food security and growth agenda and better integrated into the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP) process. Support for Rural Food Sector Enterprises to flourish is essential for creating new opportunities for young people to find employment in Africa's largest economic sector.

Turning challenges into opportunities

Rural to urban migration isn't just a burden. First, in Africa, the urbanization is decentralized. This means that lots of smaller cities and towns are growing, not just major cities. And here lies the opportunity - smaller towns closer to farmers drives demand for food. Demand for food in turn creates an accessible market for smallholder farmers and rural and food sector related entrepreneurial opportunity.

Don't forget, food doesn't make it to your plate without going through several stages of processing, transport and marketing (what we refer to as the agricultural value chain). The opportunities that occur from the lab to the fork are what Government's must seize.

The Montpellier Panel believes that the answer to harnessing the entrepreneurial spirit of the young African population and unleashing the potential of the agriculture sector is threefold.

People, especially youth require strong vocational and business management training to equip them with the right knowledge and skills to start successful enterprises along the agribusiness value chain. Easy access to adequate and affordable financing for starting and growing enterprises must be made available. Finally, an enabling environment with strong political leadership that allows entrepreneurship to flourish and embeds the notion of entrepreneurship in the agriculture sector in the wider political and economic agenda must be supported.

It is time to act now. We need to invest in young people's knowledge and skills, integrate farmers into markets and mobilise strong political leadership in order to make agriculture the profitable and attractive sector it can be and needs to be.