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Getting to work in Kenya: The realities of youth employment

This is a guest post by Dave Algoso who blogs at Find What Works. He works and lives in Kenya. 



Kenya’s growing ICT sector has been one of the region’s most phenomenal development stories in recent years. The country has become a pioneer in mobile technology through the successes of the money transfer system M-PESA and the crowd-sourcing platform Ushahidi. These innovations have been good for the Kenyan economy, and have found applications throughout rich and poor countries alike.

However, this picture of high-tech growth contrasts sharply with the reality facing many Kenyans. Only 3 out of 10 Kenyans live in urban areas. Agriculture represents nearly a quarter of the economy. Tea alone brings 19% of export earnings. Although Kenya is seeing significant rural-urban migration, it will be at least a decade before it matches the current global average of 50% urban/50% rural (see the World Bank’s recent Kenya economic update for more).

Jane Wangui picks tea at Gitugi village in Othaya on May 10, 2010. Photo/ JOSEPH KANYI

Even in the urban areas, Kenyan youth are caught in a precarious position. They are highly educated but unable to find jobs. Jobs in the formal economy are scarce and often require personal connections. As a result, many don’t even bother applying. A UNDP report from two years ago noted another problem: a mismatch between the skills taught in Kenyan colleges, and those skills needed for the few jobs available. Youth who have completed secondary or post-secondary school are left without many options for advancement. Completing school has the effect of raising expectations and creating a bias against returning to agriculture. Accessing land is difficult anyway, given the displacement caused under colonialism and the land grabs made by Kenyan political elites in the post-colonial era.

This economic situation has negative implications for peace in Kenya. After a disputed presidential election in December 2007, violence erupted between supporters of the two candidates. The divisions fell largely along ethnic lines, as they had in smaller outbreaks of violence following elections in the 1990s. The violence in late 2007 and early 2008 left over a thousand people dead and hundreds of thousands displaced. The youth were at the center, but they didn’t act on their own. Politicians preyed on the economic vulnerability of youth by paying them and instigating the violence (for more, see the Waki Commission report).

The relationship between peace and livelihoods for Kenyan youth was illustrated clearly for me a few weeks ago. I spent the day with a youth self-help group in one of the slum areas near Eldoret, in the Rift Valley Province of western Kenya. Eldoret had been the epicenter of the post-election violence. This particular group of youth had come together while they were living in the displacement camp in early 2008. Without the means to return home and rebuild when they left the camp, the youth instead moved into the surrounding area. None of this group’s members had found formal employment, though many of them are college graduates. They displayed impressive entrepreneurship, running a kinyozi (barber shop) and other small businesses. There are few other opportunities available. In some slum areas, especially around Nairobi, this has proved to be fertile ground for criminal gangs.

Kenyan men outside a barber shop. Photo: SUM Consult

An uneasy peace has held since a power-sharing agreement brought the post-election violence to an end. Last year’s constitutional referendum was tense, but uneventful. Many Kenyans are worried about next year’s presidential election. On the one hand, the stakes for winning the presidency will be lower this time, as the new constitution has stripped the office of the excessive powers it once held. On the other hand, the next few years will determine the implementation of other aspects of the new constitution, such as decentralization and land reform. These changes will be significant for Kenya’s future. The ICC process – centered around six suspects accused of organizing and funding the post-election violence – is also a source of ongoing tension. The live broadcast of the pre-trial hearings on Kenyan television is having mixed effects on peacebuilding: at least one civil society organization has encouraged communities to watch the proceedings, in the hopes that this will counter misinformation; however, a few local leaders have banned people from gathering to watch in public places, out of fear that that the ICC process will stoke further conflict.

While the ICC attempts to ensure accountability for those who organized the violence, the economic condition of youth should also be addressed. Until livelihood opportunities improve, youth will remain vulnerable to manipulation. Political stability and economic development are the chicken-and-egg for post-conflict countries. Of course, we know that they must both be built at the same time. Investments in Kenya’s economic stability can also have outsized returns, as the country remains a keystone for the region. This role will increase in importance as the East Africa Community develops: last year Uganda replaced the UK as Kenya’s top trading partner, while Somalia, the DRC and Sudan have also moved into the top 10 (see the same World Bank report cited above).

Economic opportunity for Kenyan youth will support political stability. The country has launched a variety of youth-oriented programs, some with donor support. More efforts are needed from both donors and private enterprise. It would be a mistake to see a tech boom as necessarily leading to greater opportunity for Kenyan youth. Every political event – from last year’s constitutional referendum, to the current ICC process, to next year’s presidential election – brings the possibility of renewed violence between communities. Another outbreak could set back the country and the region by years.

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