Exploring a changing employment landscape: Implications for Malawi’s youth

Credit: M.Maher/ IFPRI

Throughout this month, USAID Malawi is highlighting work that focuses on youth and population issues. As they look at how support from the U.S. and other partners have contributed to programs that help uplift youth in Malawi, we offer a peek at some interesting recent findings from IFPRI researchers on this topic.

A forthcoming peer-reviewed book being produced by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) examines youth and employment worldwide. One chapter, co-authored by researchers Todd Benson, Alvina Erman, and Bob Baulch, specifically looks at youth employment patterns in Malawi over the period 2004 to 2013. This study assesses which factors, if any, impact youth’s employment choices in Malawi. It asks (1) if there has been a shift of labor out of agriculture and into other sectors, and (2) if youth in Malawi are entering the labor force differently from past generations?

Before looking at study results, it is important to understand the context in which Malawian youth live.

The economic and demographic landscape

Malawi has one of the fastest growing populations in the world, estimated at 18.3 million in mid-2017 (a four-fold increase in 50 years), and is projected to reach 43.2 million by 2050. Furthermore, Malawi’s younger youth—especially females—are becoming more educated (an increase of 1.2 school years between 1998 and 2008) following the start of the Malawi’s free primary education program in 1994. These factors indicate that more and more Malawians, especially young and educated ones, will be seeking sustainable livelihoods and brighter futures for themselves and their families in coming years. How, if at all, can the national economy support this growing need?

What role does agriculture play in the structure of future employment in Malawi?

Malawi is among the 15 most agriculture-dependent countries in the world. In 2013, 87 percent of those of working age who were employed were working in agriculture. However, factors pushing workers out of agriculture are intensifying. These include farms declining in size and the consequent decreasing sustainability of agriculture-based livelihoods. Research shows us that these push factors will continue to intensify with population growth.

At the same time, the factors that pull people into non-farm sectors are strengthening. These include growth, if modest, in the Malawian economy; expanding employment in the services sector; increased educational attainment permitting educated individuals to access jobs outside of agriculture; and regional labor migration, especially to South Africa.

Main findings

IFPRI’s study examined how Malawi’s social, demographic, and economic context affected the employment choices of Malawians, particularly for youth. The findings come from an analysis of data on individuals of working age (15 to 64 years) from the Malawi Integrated Household Surveys (IHS). Data were disaggregated by age – younger youth (15 to 24 years), older youth (25 to 34 years), and non-youth (35 to 64 years); by rural or urban residency; and by sex. If an individual was employed, then the sector of employment– agriculture, industry, or services – was examined. If an individual was not economically active, then whether the individual was a student was considered. (See Figure 1.)

Figure 1: Malawi 2013, size of employment categories by age cohort, disaggregated by rural and urban and by male and female, percentage share of population


Source: Analysis by authors of 2013 Malawi Integrated Household Panel Survey. Weighted analysis.

Below are some key findings from the study:

  • Younger youth are remaining in school for longer, thus delaying their entry into employment. If employed, most younger youth work on-farm.
  • Older youth aged 30 to 35 years are more likely than younger youth to be employed in non-farm activities, although most still work in agriculture. Non-youth over 35 years of age are the most likely to have non-farm jobs.
  • Males dominate employment outside of agriculture.
  • Greater educational attainment results in higher probability of working outside of agriculture (i.e. in formal, wage-based employment), although these opportunities are rare.
  • There is a strong association between household wealth and engagement in non-farm employment.
  • Larger landholdings are associated with a lower propensity to be in non-farm employment. This suggests that farming remains a viable livelihood choice for those with sufficient land.
  • Declining landholding size, particularly for older youth and non-youth, is a significant push factor, propelling them to seek off-farm employment.
  • A strong inverse association exists between the distance to Malawi’s largest urban centers and whether an individual engaged in any non-farm employment. Living near cities typically offers more non-farm employment opportunities.
  • Individuals in shock-prone communities are more likely to engage in some non-farm employment.

Overall, there was no strong evidence that a process of structural change in employment is taking place in Malawi, or that youth are at the forefront of such changes. Agriculture remains, by far, the primary entry-point into work and continues to dominate the overall employment. Working in non-farm sectors still is rare and more commonly occurs later in life, after workers have built the financial capital, experience, and social networks needed to succeed outside of agriculture.

Policy recommendations to guide action and investment

There will be more youth entering the job market in Malawi than ever before – the National Statistical Office projected that in 2017, just under 700,000 babies would be born in Malawi and the country’s population would grow by about 550,000 persons net, an indication of the numbers of new employment places soon required annually. Current land resources and farm productivity levels cannot sustain this growing need. So, what exactly can be done?

  • Maintain or expand investments in education
    • Research indicates good returns, both socially and individually, to investments in educating youth.
  • Agriculture alone cannot provide all the jobs that are needed.
    • Government and partners should make public investments to foster continued growth in the services and industrial sectors. Doing so will pull people out of the agricultural sector, growing and diversifying Malawi’s economy.
    • Non-farm job opportunities will be based in Malawi’s cities and will require reliable power and links to global markets. Thus, the Government should continue efforts to upgrade energy, transport, and communications infrastructure, and significantly increase investments in urban development.
  • Agriculture will remain at the core of Malawi’s economy.
    • Continue to invest in increasing agricultural productivity.
    • Emphasize value-addition activities for agriculture products with the most economic and commercial potential.
    • Strengthen linkages between agriculture and other employment sectors, such as industry and services, as their growth will depend on a vibrant agricultural sector.


The draft book chapter is available here (PDF, 2MB). Book, still untitled, forthcoming in 2018.

Below are some other resources on youth and employment in Malawi and sub-Saharan Africa: