High profile national challenges, coupled with high-octane politics, have succeeded in effectively overshadowing what is perhaps Kenya’s greatest headache - the problem of youth unemployment.
These domineering national problems include corruption, tribalism, and fractious politics exacerbated by early campaigning, to mention but a few.
Yet the challenge of youth unemployment commands urgent attention, as it is perfectly capable of great social disruption unless urgent comprehensive measures are taken to address it.
It is not as if there is confusion over the definition of youth or even a dearth of policies on this youthful demographic.
Various government policies, including the Kenya Youth Development Policy 2019, the Age of Majority Act (Cap 33) as well as Article 260 of the Constitution of Kenya (2010), all define youth as those between 18 years and below 35 years and recognise that the youth are an essential component of our nation’s development.
According to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS)’s Kenya Integrated Household Budget Survey 2015/2016, the youth constituted 32 percent of the population, or 16 million out of a total population of 50 million people.
Of this number, 49 percent are male and 51 percent female. There is an even bigger population of children below 18 years.
This confirms that the Kenyan population is strikingly youthful. Kenya has what is often referred to as the “youth bulge.”
This “bulge” is a double-edged sword. As numerous examples from history show, the youth can either be a blessing – known as the “youth dividend” - or a curse depending on how society handles them.
From an economic perspective, the youth are a national resource, representing 55 percent of the labour force – a great opportunity to accelerate economic growth when engaged productively, being, as they are, one vast reservoir of education, skills, energy, creativity and innovation.
In politics, the youth constituted 51 percent of registered voters in 2017 signalling rising interest and participation of the youth in national issues. But the youth can be a source of debilitating civil strife, particularly if their collective frustrations meet with high political mobilisation. Recently, politically conscious but idle youth have been mobilised through social media to become the vanguard of ill-considered social revolutions some of which have reduced formerly functional states to rubble.
The greatest challenge confronting Kenya is therefore how to create meaningful economic opportunities in order to forestall unrest among the youth, about 800,000 of whom are entering the job market every year, according to data released by the Kenya Youth Enterprise Development Fund in 2018.
As matters stand, the youth face not just a lack of jobs, but also underemployment, vulnerable employment and inactivity. Some are compelled to migrate to risky foreign labour markets or lured into destructive behaviour such as alcohol and drug abuse.
While a concerted effort by the government and its international development partners has put in place several resources to aid the youth in accessing gainful activities, access to these resources is hardly automatic. Most of them have to contend with a lack of collateral and rigid bureaucracies.
Additionally, the youth also find that the skills they acquired in school or college do not match the skills required in the marketplace.
According to a 2018 report by UNICEF titled Elimu, Ajira, Maisha: Adolescent Skill, Living and Working in Kenya, “The documented consequences of high youth unemployment (and under-employment) include the costly high dependency ratio, the risk of civil disobedience, alcoholism and drug abuse, radicalisation and the massive loss of productive energy.”
However, not every problem the youth face is externally driven. Some youths shun perfectly productive activities like agriculture. In 2017, the average age of farmers in Kenya was over 62 years, testifying to the fact that local farming is highly deprived of the energy and innovativeness of the nation’s youth.
Due to post-school inactivity and negative influence by wayward characters, the idle youth become susceptible to criminal activities, becoming radicalised and engaging in violent extremism.
There is evidence that the government is aware of the challenge before it and has been taking measures to ameliorate the situation. These include various legal, institutional and policy frameworks taken by successive governments to address issues affecting the youth.
The last five years or so in particular have witnessed spirited discussion and implementation of various education reforms, among them fee subsidies to enhance access, teacher training and technological upgrading to improve quality, and the transition to competency-based curriculum in basic education and Technical, Vocational Education and Training (TVET) to improve relevance.
This is being done to supplement the work of institutions and interventions established to handle youth affairs, including the State Department in charge of youth, the Kenya Youth Employment and Opportunities Programme (KYEOP), the National Youth Council, National Youth Service, the Youth Enterprise Development Fund and the Uwezo Fund.
In all, government strategy documents show that there are “at least 62 programmes currently underway that target job creation, job linkage and training aimed explicitly at addressing the youth employment challenge. Together, these programmes alone represent a total of more than Sh90 billion in multi-year commitments from a full range of actors.”
Efforts by such institutions, while helpful, must acknowledge that in addition to conventional numeracy and literacy competencies, young people require specific skills and values that will help them cope and thrive in the knowledge economy.
These skills are known variously as 21st century skills, social skills, character traits or attitudes, employability skills, soft skills, life skills, interpersonal people skills, transversal capabilities, socio emotional competencies or transferrable skills.
Failure to impart these skills is the Achilles Heel of the Kenyan education system.
As Unicef notes in the report referred to earlier, “the education system in Kenya lays heavy emphasis on academic and cognitive skills, with little focus on other competences demanded by today’s living and working spaces such as communication, creativity and critical thinking, grit or resilience and leadership skills.”
Yet lack of these skills contributes to a lack of creativity, innovation, ethical behaviour, problem-solving skills and sheer staying power or persistence.
The new curriculum, which has been met with a lot of opposition, is aimed at correcting these anomalies in our education system.
However, the curriculum, facing faces teacher capacity and resource inadequacies, needs to be augmented with other urgent interventions as it addresses school going children while disregarding the “other half” that is out of school.
To address the issue of job creation for its youth, the government is any time now set to launch a flagship initiative known as Young Africa Works (YAW) that will address opportunities for youth participation in the economy more comprehensively.
Developed in conjunction with a range of local and international partners, the YAW is closely aligned with the Big Four Agenda and Vision 2030.
The author teaches at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, University of Nairobi. Email: [email protected]