Riches without breaking a sweat, the strange world of Kenya’s youth

Saturday August 3 2013

PHOTO | CHARLES KAMAU Youth enjoying music and drinks at a past event in Nairobi.

PHOTO | CHARLES KAMAU Youth enjoying music and drinks at a past event in Nairobi. NATION MEDIA GROUP


The Kenya story from the latest Holla, that study of East African youth by Consumer Insight that it does every two years, paints a very fascinating picture of the country’s young people. Now, the juicy bits of these studies are the ones that we often ignore, and at first don’t seem to have much to say — until one looks twice.

The 2013 Holla study, which came out a few weeks ago, is no different. So what picture emerges of the Kenyan youth in 2013?
First, we get a good sense of how their social, artistic, and cultural outlooks, are changing.

The study tells us that the popularity of Bongo Flava music has declined considerably between 2009 and 2013, Blues has increased, and Rhythm and Blues has remained the same. But it is not only Blues that has increased.

Way down at the end of that section of the report, we find that in 2009, 0 per cent of Kenyan youth reported listening to Classical music. In 2013, that number was 2 per cent; still small, but an impressive growth. Considering that no FM station, except one, occasionally plays classical music, where do these young people find it?

One of the things that have quietly grown in Kenya, especially around Nairobi, is private music schools. Most of them teach classical music, and have been producing a new crop of musicians who can read and write formally.

In addition, cultural institutions like the German Goethe-Institut in Nairobi (who by the way played an important part in launching the career of Just a Band, those cool guys who brought us “Makmende”), and perhaps most significantly, Safaricom’s glamorous Classic Concerts, probably combined to create this shift.

Ironic, isn’t it, that possibly the permanent mark some young Kenyans will carry into their lives 20 ahead years from using Safaricom’s services will be music taste – something that is not its core business.

But in the Holla we also begin to sense how the traumatic events of the 2008 post-election period might have changed youth attitudes in very subtle ways. For example, though action movies are still the most popular genre for young Kenyans, its appeal has declined sharply – from 58 per cent in 2009 to 30 per cent in 2013. We see a decline too in the Uganda Holla data that has just come out, but it is much smaller than Kenya’s.

The bit that intrigues

We have read stories reporting on the Holla study noting that the Drama genre has grown most consistently, from 5 per cent in 2009, to 12 per cent in 2011, and 20 per cent in 2013. The bit that intrigues me though is comedy. It stayed the same in 2011 and 2013, but jumped the most between 2009 and 2011, from 3 per cent to 11 per cent.

It seems that political and other violence is not leading to a higher acceptance of violence, but instead putting young people off. For parents, that is a good thing. Comedy that offers relief from the dreariness has been the big beneficiary. This wave in turn has been gold for radio presenter/comedian Churchill, making him the most popular presenter.

And, my favourite – and by far the most revealing – gem in the Holla study is what it tells us about youth aspirations. A hefty 62 per cent of them said they want to be rich; 52 per cent want to be professional, 33 per cent to be leaders, and 30 per cent to be famous.

Not surprisingly, then, in 2013 most Kenyan youth, 37 per cent, also said a prosperous/comfortable life was the most important thing in life.

The devil here, as always, is in the details, because to be rich or a successful professional, if one is not stealing from the company or taxpayer, there are four legal ways left to wealth – either through education, working at whatever you love (a career), you can inherit it, or marry into it.

In 2009, most Kenyan youth, 28 per cent of them, indeed said education was the most important thing. However, that dropped to 18 per cent in 2011, then dramatically further down to 11 per cent in 2013. So the number of young Kenyans who want to be rich has increased, but at the same time the number of those who think education is the path to being rich has declined.

Well, you don’t really need to have a college degree to be rich. But there is one thing that doesn’t change: Unless you win a lottery, however else you get rich, you have to work hard at it. And in 2009, 13 per cent of Kenyan youth agreed that a career was important. However, in a discouraging development, that number dropped to 11 per cent in 2011, and even fell further to just 8 per cent in 2013. By the way, Kenya is not the worst – the numbers from Uganda are more depressing.

So you have a country where more youth want to be rich, but every other year fewer and fewer of them want to study or work hard for it. Not good. An alarmist would say we could see a rise in the number of young people becoming robbers in order to get money. One might even blame corrupt politicians and public officials, that they are giving young people a bad example about how to get rich. However, recently the Police reported, to many people’s surprise, that crime has fallen over the last year.

Still, I found this puzzling, and tried to see if there was anything in the data that would explain this contradiction. It is there, although in a roundabout sort of way. Kenyan youth are not becoming lazy slobs who want to grow rich without going to school or working at it. No, they are only becoming globalised.

About media use

This picture of an increasingly globalised youth emerges from several things, including media use. When it comes to media use, 99 per cent of Kenya youth surveyed said they have ever watched TV; but a smaller number, 92 per cent, said they were watching TV regularly currently. Then 92 per cent said they listened to radio; but again fewer, 69 per cent, are doing so regularly today.

When it comes to the Internet, 47 per cent said they used the Internet, but in keeping with the pattern 39 per cent are doing so currently.

Things then get very hairy when it comes to newspapers, as 67 per cent said they have read newspapers, but only 28 per cent, less than half, are currently reading them regularly.

This means TV and the Internet have high conversion rates; after initial use, most youth continue using them. But for newspapers, the picture is not rosy. Thus while 33 per cent of young Kenyans stop reading newspapers, just 10 per cent stopped being regular users of the Internet, and only 6 per cent dropped off from frequent TV viewing.

However, outside school, newspapers remain the principal means by which Kenyan values and the things the country cherishes are still conveyed. They are the main means by which politics is reported and framed. Indeed, according to the study, newspapers lead as the “most trusted” source of news in only one category – political analysis.

In the rest of the categories, TV beats all other media hands down. But on looking closer, the results tell us that while TV use drops off as young people grow, their use of the Internet increases.

Unlike newspapers that do a good of painting a portrait of Kenya and reinforcing Kenyanness, TV and the Internet bring the rest of the world closer. My own sense of the data tells me that the increasing use of the Internet as people grow, and that the social media (Facebook, Twitter) is the biggest driver of Internet use in Kenya, the heroes of the digital age like Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg are the kind of successful and rich people youth want to be like.

Zuckerberg, and other billionaires like Microsoft founder Bill Gates, or indeed Apple’s late tech giant Steve Jobs, dropped out of college because, to use an expression popular with young people, it was doing nothing for them.

What they proved is not that education isn’t necessary, but rather that in today’s world being creative and innovative gets you more rewards. And to be creative and innovative, you sometimes don’t need to work terribly hard or even spend long hours in the library. The Holla study might be telling us that Kenya’s youth get that.

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