Youth Employment

By Irũngũ Houghton

Madaraka Day offered us an opportunity to remember Kenya’s painful struggle for political freedom and reflect how far we have come in the last sixty years. More importantly, in the light of a new study, can we take this moment to reimagine Kenya, particularly from the eyes of Kenya’s youth?

Despite our current gaping economic, social, and political divisions, the stories of the freedom fighters in the forests, towns and villages and the negotiators in Lancaster House and Legislative Councils always leaves me with a sense of pride and curiosity. What was that like for our founding fathers and mothers? If the primary responsibility of every generation is to expand freedoms and safety for the next, who and where are today’s Kimathis, Mukamis, Jaramogis and Pio Pintos?

Youth Alive Kenya released their 31-county youth situational analysis just in time for Madaraka Day. 75 per cent of the population are under the age of 35. 500-800,000 young people tip into the market looking for jobs or livelihoods opportunities each year. Financial uncertainty for most will drive the worrying national statistics of substance addiction, gender-based violence, homelessness, mental ill-health, and suicide.

The report reaffirms that education remains critical for future employability but increasingly, Generation Z and Alpha favour entrepreneurship over employment. Internship and apprenticeships remain important for building knowledge, skills, and networks. Kenyan youth are highly creative and talented. They are quick to embrace information technology, but also struggle with negative self-esteem, are under-educated and grossly under-employed and lastly, prone to extremist anti-social and corrupt influence. 77 per cent of youth were apathetic during last year’s General Elections.

Reviewing two decades of youth empowerment policies, funds and programmes, Youth Alive Kenya makes several useful recommendations. Tailoring our education system towards entrepreneurial and business scale up skills development, introducing county specific business opportunities, strengthening oversight and support for those emigrating and prioritising young people in the public service would reduce their current challenges. Overhauling the National Employment Policy and Act, introducing clear forward-looking policies regulating the GIG economy and tighter coordination of all state departments with youth mandates is needed now.

The report is timely for the Kenya Kwanza administration’s efforts to increase affordable credit and business opportunities for SMEs in the current hostile financial environment. It also strengthens arguments against current bills urging funding cuts to our schools, universities and education system as a whole.

Reading the report, I would argue that apart from business acumen, much more policy attention and investment is needed to deepen emotional intelligence, ethical and other values that inform citizenship. Informal work has its financial benefits but is notorious for ignoring collaborative skills, personal career growth and a sense of belonging and a purpose higher than self. Without this, Kenya’s youth with find themselves swinging between the pendulum of cut-throat-ism and isolation.

Corruption remains our greatest threat. As the late Bob Collymore once remarked, what’s the point of articulate and highly skilled, competent staff if they are stealing from the company and each other at any chance they get? Having said this, no amount of investment will make a difference if leaders are stealing by example.

The report also reinforces for me the bankruptcy of an employment strategy that starts with encouraging unskilled labour migration, youth brain drain, and hoping the diaspora sends back remittances to tax. This strategy is not vastly different from those African chiefs in the nineteenth century who caught and traded slaves to foreigners in the nineteenth century. While the Government is not forcing Kenyan youth to migrate, surely the first objective is to keep our youth gainly employed and productive at home not abroad.

One of Africa’s most vibrant writers and passionate youth advocate, Ama Ata Aidoo died at 83 this week. Appointed Education Minister in the Government of Jerry Rawlings, she chose to resign rather than introduce World Bank user fees and cost sharing conditionality on Ghana’s schools and universities. May her spirit of defiance and love of Africa pass down to another generation.

Irũngũ Houghton is Amnesty International Kenya Executive Director and writes in his personal capacity. Email: [email protected]