The conversion of natural land into agriculture is a key driver explaining the global collapse of biodiversity (IPBES, 2019). While protected areas remain the backbone of conservation efforts, their impact at preventing the loss of natural habitats and protecting biodiversity remains uncertain (e.g., Lindsey et al., 2020). There is a growing urgency to find complementary policies at the development-conservation nexus that promote non-agricultural employment. This study context epitomises these challenges. With 7,800 square meters of natural habitat, the Virunga National Park (VNP) in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is the oldest park in Africa, one of the most biodiverse parks in the world, a UNESCO world heritage site in danger, and home to endangered Mountain Gorillas and carbon rich forests (de Merode and Languy, 2006). However, poverty threatens to undermine preservation efforts, with 5M people living in its direct vicinity and many farming illegally within the park. Little is known about the effect on conservation efforts of providing access to jobs.

This research project aims to fill this gap by studying how an apprenticeship programme targeting young farmers living in the direct vicinity of VNP could accelerate local structural transformation by meeting the twin challenges of:
•    generating quality jobs;
•     and reducing demand for land.

Apprenticeships have been found to be effective in screening workers for firms in Ghana (Hardy and McCasland, 2020) and boosting skills development and employment rates of young jobseekers in Uganda (Alfonsi et al., 2020). However, although apprentices are common features in Europe, this policy lever remains relatively rare in sub-Saharan Africa, with evidence limited to a few studies. This is especially true for highly impoverished and conflict-affected settings, such the eastern DRC. It has also yet to be tested in the context of conservation.

With climate change and preservation of biodiversity an ever more important global priority, the challenge in conserving nature and providing livelihoods for impoverished populations (most affected by conservation) is an imperative but neglected development economics question (Alpizar and Ferraro, 2020). This study seeks to contribute evidence to this budding literature, by measuring whether apprenticeship programmes boost off-farm employment, and reduce the demand for agricultural land.


The project has launched the first phase of the apprenticeship programme to establish a proof of concept, with the intention to launch a second larger-scale phase. The study takes the form of a randomised control trial to evaluate the impact of the apprenticeship programme on the employment status and land use of farmers.

In the first phase, 525 consenting farmers between 18 and 30 years old are assigned into three groups:
•    an apprenticeship programme;
•    a bus ticket subsidy;
•    no intervention.

Apprentices will have the opportunity to work in a microenterprise located in a nearby city over a period of three months. Over a thousand microenterprises were created over the last two to three years following important investments done to promote the growth of private sector in Nord Kivu (including the construction of four hydropower plants), translating into an increase in available jobs. Through quantitative and qualitative data collection, researchers explore the ways in which the apprenticeship might shift various constraints in their decision to move out of agriculture and hence decrease their demand for lands.

The study also cross-randomises consenting microenterprises into the apprenticeship programme and a control group to assess whether the intervention alleviates labour market frictions for firm growth.  A large empirical literature in development economics has explored the role of credit, physical and human capital constraints on firm growth (Banerjee et al., 2015; De Mel et al., 2008; Brooks et al., 2018; Karlan et al., 2015). However, the literature on labour market constraints has largely focused on jobseekers to date, except for a couple of studies (De Mel et al. 2019; Hardy and Casland, 2020). In this study in VNP, sub-hourly electricity consumption of microenterprises, obtained through a smart hydro-electricity grid owned by VNP, will provide an objective predictor of firm activity, unlike self-reported firm sales and profits.


Research ongoing; results to follow.


January 2021 - December 2022

Democratic Republic of Congo

World map pointing to the Democratic Republic of Congo

Firms, Farms and Labour



Parc National Des Virunga logo
Virunga Alliance logo
Virunga National Park logo in french