Tackling Youth Unemployment in Kenya

By Margaret Wamuyu Muthee OSI New African Voices Scholar, Woodrow Wilson Center

Sep 15, 2010

Today, Kenya's youth unemployment rate stands at 65%, among the highest in the world. Significantly, youth are engaged in the informal sector, which is largely unregulated and workers are subjected to low earnings and long working hours, without any formal contract. Suffering under a slow-growing economy, youth, whether well educated or uneducated, have increasingly turned to crime and violence, serving as watu wa mkono (handymen) to the ruling elite and intimidating and harassing their political opponents. Violence during Kenya's disputed 2007 elections left approximately 1,133 people dead and 650,000 displaced from their land—many of these atrocities were committed at the hands of youth, for sums as low as $6. With the 2012 elections fast-approaching, Kenya risks renewed violence if the daunting youth unemployment rate is not properly addressed.

Against this backdrop, the Kenya government, has the Youth Enterprise Development Fund (YEDF) and Kazi kwa Vijana (KKV, which translates to "jobs for youth") to boost employment and entrepreneurship among youth of ages 18 to 35. Through YEDF, groups of up to 12 people can submit a business plan and apply for funding as well as other services such as training, mentorship and market access. It fund also connects youth with local and international job markets. KKV facilitates access to temporary, labour-intensive jobs for generally low wages, and also offers some business training. Given the high poverty levels among youth in Kenya, temporary jobs can help young people learn the marketable skills they need to find decent work. But it's not a long-term solution; these low-paying jobs can also trap people in poverty, making crime and violence seem like the only viable exit.

Kenya would do well to learn from other countries' efforts, where similar programmes have long existed. For example, Italy's Imprenditorialita Giovanile, or "Young Entrepreneurs' Company," and the UK's Prince Trust exist solely to support young people's start-up businesses. Like Kenya's efforts, these two programmes provide training and mentoring to young people; however, they also have autonomy from their respective governments, which gives them freedom to operate without political interference and burdensome bureaucracy. Services are delivered by highly competent successful entrepreneurs, who inspire youth to become entrepreneurs, not as an alternative to joblessness, but as a genuine career path with financial reward and work satisfaction. Through these programmes, youth have managed to start and sustain viable businesses, and attain financial independence and stability.

Compared to these cases, Kenya's KKV and YEDF fall short. Their activities overlap, and their objectives are too broad, which makes them unachievable within a reasonable time-frame. They are also constrained by heavy government control. The Prime Minister's office oversees KKV, while the Ministry of Sports and Youth Affairs manages YEDF. As a consequence, the programmes are burdened by politics rather than professionalism. And the programmes' near-sighted focus on temporary employment is but a bandage; Kenya needs long-term strategies to enable youth to access more rewarding and productive work. Finally, there is a tendency to treat youth as a homogenous group, which could end up isolating some young people who cannot fulfill YEDF's requirements such as business plan development, a registered group and an existing bank account. The rules should be more flexible and needs-based in order to benefit some of the needy and illiterate youth who require more rigorous training and support to succeed.

While youth unemployment is a widespread phenomenon in the world, the case is much worse in Kenya; 3 in 5 unemployed Kenyans are youth, aged between 15 and 35 years. The situation is exacerbated by the shrinking economy amidst political instability and pervasive income inequality. Fundamentally, the problem requires properly planned, well-structured, and broad-based programmes—and so far the government seems to be tinkering at the superficial level without a long-term, comprehensive plan. Accelerating economic growth is central to creating employment opportunities for youth, as well as providing market-driven education and training and life skills. In order to make a smooth transition, young people require decent work so as to actively contribute to economic and political development and stability. Short of this, youth will remain at the margin of the economy, to serve as the violent watu wa mkono in 2012 and beyond.

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