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Reducing Youth Unemployment in Kenya

By Raphael Obonyo

Youth unemployment in Kenya is a ticking time bomb waiting to explode. Today, unemployment in Kenya stands at 40%, and 70% of those unemployed are between the ages of 15 and 35. The World Bank estimates that approximately 800,000 Kenyans join the labor market each year, and only 50,000 succeed in getting professional jobs.  Not surprisingly, the high level of unemployment has been blamed for escalating incidents of crime and insecurity in the country.

However, to reverse this trend, Kenya must see its growing youth population as an opportunity, not a liability. Young Kenyans constitute 36% of the population, estimated to be about 39 million people. Forbes Africa recently released a list of Africa’s 30 best entrepreneurs under 30. Notably, 7 out of the 30 entrepreneurs are Kenyan. The high number of Kenyans on the Forbes Africa list is representative of the energy, talent, and creativity that abound in the country.

Yet the government has thus far failed to promote and encourage this kind of innovative thinking. If Kenya wants to remain competitive, it must develop a curriculum that caters to the demands of its burgeoning labor market. In addition to a curriculum redesign, the government should partner with the private sector to provide young Kenyans with skills in information and communication technologies.

Recently, President Uhuru Kenyatta launched the Uwezo (Ability) Fund, a program that aims to address the rising youth unemployment in the country. However, there is skepticism as to whether the fund can tackle this issue, given that previous attempts have failed.  For example, the Youth Enterprise and Development Fund, launched in 2006, has not had any significant impact. The revolving fund of $57 million has been marred by gross mismanagement, political interference, and leadership wrangles. Similarly, in 2009, a World Bank-funded youth project dubbed Kazi Kwa Vijana (KKV, or Jobs For Youth) was launched to deal with youth unemployment, but collapsed in 2011 after claims of gross cash mismanagement and misappropriation of funds. Approximately 300,000 young Kenyans employed in the KKV initiatives were left without a source of income when the program was brought to an abrupt halt.

Just before the launch of the Uwezo Fund and the KKV, the Government had initiated another program meant to give young people access to 30 percent of all government contract opportunities. In that case, young entrepreneurs would be accorded preference to supply goods and services to the government. However, due to blatant mismanagement and bureaucratic failures, the government failed to carry through on its 30 percent offer. In other words, only a handful of deserving young Kenyans have been able to access opportunities in providing goods and services to the Kenyan government.

To combat this flagrant corruption, Kenya needs youth employment policies that pay critical attention to entrepreneurship. It is unfortunate that government programs established to tackle youth unemployment have been reactive and are not backed with sound policies to ensure sustainability. The dismal performance of youth employment programs established in the past is indicative of the fact that allocation of funds alone is not enough. The country requires comprehensive policies and programs that provide training, appropriate skills, resources, and market support for youth. If policymakers can harness the entrepreneurial ideas of young people in the country, they will be doing a service not just for the youth population, but for Kenya at large.

An example of such potential can be found in Anthony Mwangi, a 25-year- old Kenyan, who discovered technology that can enable human beings to charge phones through their shoes. Similarly, MIT listed Evans Wadongo among 35 global young innovators. Wadongo has invented solar-powered lantern lamps that can be used in rural and poor urban homes, which cannot access electricity.

Simply stated, no country can remain prosperous and stable without investing in its youth. Kenya must realize that there can be no long-term security and development without opportunities for youth. There is an urgent need to tackle the worsening unemployment among the growing youth population as it threatens social cohesion, political stability, and economic growth. In particular, the government must do more and join hands with civil society and private sector to provide conditions where young entrepreneurs can prosper. 

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Raphael Obonyo is the external adviser and a member of the UN Habitat’s Youth Advisory Board. He is a Global Young Diplomat. In 2013, German Marshall Fund of the United States recognized Obonyo as one of the emerging leaders in the world. He holds a Masters in Public Policy from Duke University in the United States. He is a Ford Foundation Fellow.

[Photo courtesy of Shuterstock]

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