Making sense of the nature of jobs in African agriculture and SMEs

The extent to which farming and non-farming activities in developing countries can create decent employment remains a fertile ground for serious research. While some African governments and churches are competing to establish universities that offer all kinds of degrees, the majority of jobs in the ballooning informal markets and SME sectors do not require a university degree. From eMKambo’s experience, this is leading to numerous problems like an increase in the number of university graduates not fit for the local economy.


At least 60% of African informal markets and SMEs are operated by people who did not excel academically but have mastered practical aspects of running small businesses like carpentry, welding and trading agricultural commodities. Vending is monopolized by women who did not do well academically. On the other hand, those who succeeded academically are failing to find jobs commensurate with their qualifications as promised by the formal education system. With knowledge being considered power, many university graduates cannot climb down to work for their peers who were academically inferior but are now successful practical entrepreneurs. Upsetting the social balance of power in this manner is creating social problems in many African countries. Graduates end up leaving for the diaspora.

Mismatch between jobs and qualifications

Due to the expansion of informal markets and the SME sector, the fastest growing jobs in Africa are low-skilled repetitive ones like harvesting agricultural commodities, loading, grading, packaging and marketing, which can be based on in-born traits. Such jobs being created along most agricultural value chains and adjacent non-farming spheres do not require degree-level qualifications. In Zimbabwe, an estimated less than 10% of jobs in agricultural value chains like poultry and potato require a bachelor’s degree, 30% require a high-school education and 60% do not require any formal qualification. This means thousands of young people gaining degrees will find themselves working in jobs that do not require a degree at all.

 The mismatch between the number of young people with degrees and the number of jobs requiring degrees is creating a generation of bored employees who do not find meaning in what they are doing.    eMKambo has witnessed how very few young people with degree-level education are willing to take lower-skilled jobs like trading agricultural commodities in informal markets. A young man who graduated with a degree in Nutrition Science told eMKambo that, after eight years teaching biology at a secondary school he constantly wonders when he will do a job for which he earned his qualification and start contributing meaningfully to the economy. Digitization has also started contributing to the decline of knowledge-intensive jobs in sectors like banking. For instance, Zimbabwe’s banking sector has lost more than 3000 jobs in the past two years following a tightening embrace of digital finance. This means thousands of students enrolling to study banking and finance in several universities find themselves doing jobs that have nothing to do with their studies after graduating.

Alternative ways of creating intelligent economies

In the current scenario, building more universities and encouraging more young people to study for degrees without availing opportunities for employment creation may not be the smartest thing to do because it means educating more people for jobs that do not exist. This increases frustration among the youth when they fail to harvest fruits from their intellectual capabilities. As if that is not enough, these students will not be able to pay back resources that were used by their parents to send them to school.  Building universities and generating more degrees is not the best way of creating an intelligent economy.  Many graduates end up joining partisan politics or getting sucked into the bandwagon of Pentecostal churches which preach the gospel of prosperity and nudge young people to sell salvation as if it’s a tangible commodity.

The notion of a knowledge economy is not about increasing the number of people with university degrees. Instead of building more universities that issue endless degrees, African governments should carefully study their economies, informal markets and SMEs. They can learn from how these self-organized institutions cultivate a fully engaged, high performing workforce through collaborative and self-directed learning. Instead of creating training courses spread over years, African universities should build learning platforms anchored on fluid curricular from where people can pull learning as they require it.  Instead of focusing on events, they should support learning processes.

Generating resilient communities through decent employment

The resilience of a community can be visible through the quality and number of jobs. Development agents, governments and universities should give young people the tools to understand and create the future for themselves and their communities. Investments by development organizations should eventually lead to business partnerships between local people and business people from countries that fund development activities. That is more resilient than building assets like dams and roads which, due to lack of knowledge, are not used optimally to lift people out of poverty. Development organizations that are supporting resilience building projects in rural African communities should complete entire value chains unlike just establishing community assets like dams, roads and irrigation systems without looking at how these efforts translate to better jobs and income.

Establishing universities is far from being a solution.  Considering the nature of local economies, a better way of transferring meaningful knowledge is establishing knowledge and service centres at community level. In almost every African country, less than 30% of young people go to colleges and universities. The remaining 70% should explore opportunities at local knowledge and service centres where their skills can be honed into efficient, transporters, traders, processors and diverse forms of artisanship which do not require a whole degree. At the moment, ordinary level and advanced level students are fascinated about getting symbols like 10 As and 15 points which, unfortunately, are not linked to career choices.

A career path should not just consider academic literacy but other elements like background, passion, calling and many other personal traits. Some students want to give back to their community which is why they go back and teach where they come from. It means they should be assisted to be on a relevant career path. Some have parents with commercial farms and should be assisted to be relevant in taking the agribusiness forward. There is no point in such students pursuing hotel and catering as a career. Others are from a small scale mining background and should be assisted to expand that business.  Some are good at seeing opportunities while some are driven by local role models.  All these aspects should be built into curriculum and career choices to avoid cases where students end up doing what they are not keen to do.

Academia should come in to improve standards and build business models as well as sharpen existing knowledge through research and development. It should also be aligned with the growth of particular enterprises. If a student is pursuing a Masters degree or a PhD, s/he should identify a community in which to apply, test and fine-tune his/her knowledge. That should lead to a qualification visible through setting a particular business on a growth path. This will avoid cases where students pursue university degrees with no idea of the final outcome.  / /

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eMkambo Call Centre: 0771 859000-5/ 0716 331140-5 / 0739 866 343-6

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