Today’s Africa faces a complex mix of challenges and promise. With almost 200 million youth ages 15 to 24, the continent has the world’s youngest population. It also boasts seven of the world’s 10 fastest growing economies. Yet the vast majority of Africa’s young people live in poverty and struggle to find employment—a fact that could jeopardize recent progress.

One approach to Africa’s youth unemployment crisis is engaging more young people in the agricultural sector. After all, Africa holds half of the world’s uncultivated arable land, with agriculture set to create stable employment for eight million people by 2020. Greater investments in the agriculture value chain could potentially add an additional six million jobs.

Given my own keen interest in widening the door of opportunity for young people worldwide, I recently participated in a two-day forum in South Africa focused on agriculture as a growing source of livelihoods for African youth. The underlying theme of the Young Africa Works Summit, hosted by The MasterCard Foundation, was clear: Africa won’t work if the vast majority of its young people are not working.

The event brought together NGO, government, and private sector leaders—and young entrepreneurs—to grapple with tough questions. How does growing rural to urban migration impact young people’s chances for finding decent jobs? What employment opportunities are emerging in the agricultural supply chain and need greater attention and investment? How do we get more young people to see agriculture as a career? How do we improve access to financial services for youth who want to start their own agriculture-related businesses? 

Unlike so many conferences I’ve attended, young people—some 50 youth delegates representing 15 African countries—played an integral role in these discussions. And so it should be. If there is anything we’ve learned in the youth development field, it’s the critical importance of engaging young people at every level of our work—whether it’s setting policy, developing a program, measuring impact, or supporting their innovative solutions.

For more than two decades, the International Youth Foundation has mobilized business, government, and civil society leaders to support youth empowerment across Africa. With a focus on promoting life skills, vocational training, business development services, financial inclusion, and leadership development, we also support the continent’s young social entrepreneurs, including those working in the agricultural sector. Here are a few ways we’ve supported ag-focused innovation, small business, and research:

The work of economically empowering more of Africa’s youth is growing ever more urgent. Think about it: 11 million youth are expected to join the Africa labor market each year. Ensuring they have the tools and experience to lead productive, independent lives—and thus help build a strong middle class—is one of our greatest development challenges. And, frankly, there are no easy answers. Yet with a combination of investments, innovation, and ingenuity, growth areas like agriculture could become a driving force across Africa—helping to address wide-ranging problems from food insecurity to inequitable economic growth to unemployment.  

Reeta Roy, President and CEO of The MasterCard Foundation, has said, “Young people are going to be the agents of change in this story, the story which will be Africa’s story.” And she is absolutely right. We need more leaders like Reeta who have a bold vision for the future and the fierce determination to invest in the young people who are so uniquely equipped to turn that vision into reality.