Youth exclusion in policy formulation and implementation, especially in rural areas, is worsening their socio-economic wellbeing. This article evaluates current youth empowerment policies and the institutions mandated to foster youth emancipation in Zimbabwe. In exploring the compatibility of these policies in a rural context, the researchers purposively selected and interviewed the youths involved in policy implementation and self-help projects (respectively). The in-depth and key informant interviews were transcribed and analysed in line with the thematic concerns of the article. Secondary data on youth empowerment policies in Zimbabwe were used to corroborate the findings. Amongst a host of shortcomings noted within the policy framework, was the issue of how there is little to no consultation in formulating, designing and implementing policies. Secondly, while poor coordination between actor organizations has debilitated delivery, corruption and a shortage of funds also hamper implementation. Panaceas to realizing the youth empowerment agenda are proposed, including context-specific policies that meet the real rural challenges as experienced by the youth and not as imagined by policymakers and enactors. This article advocates for youth participation at every stage of developing such programmes while also empowering relevant institutions to enhance the emancipation of youth. In contributing to the broader discussion on rural African youth empowerment, this article advocates for the mainstreaming of youth policies as a conduit to enhancing their socio-economic emancipation. In addressing knowledge gaps, the article illuminates the plight of rural youths, their exclusion from development initiatives (implemented by street-level bureaucrats) and their response to such exclusion.