Creating employment is perhaps the foremost agenda of any political system, particularly in developing countries like Kenya.
Wananchi expect that the entire leadership of the country understands how employment is created. That is part of the reason they vote them in.
The truth of the matter, however, is that many of our leaders have no clue as to how to create employment. In the past, we have come up with strange, unsustainable job programs. Kazi kwa Vijana was one such haphazardly executed initiative.
As a consequence of the rent-seeking practices that characterise our politics, policymakers turned implementers. Within no time, there were no resources to sustain the project, which in the end had no return.
Good policies can create jobs. Take the Constituency Development Fund (CDF), which provides some jobs in every constituency. A slight policy change in the CDF geared towards financing productive value-adding investment could lead to an industrial revolution within our rural communities if executed well.
Such investments could reduce the more than 30 per cent agricultural post-harvest losses and put money into the pockets of rural folk.
The ripple effect from creating jobs in rural areas would be enormous, including the creation of rural town centres, reduced migration to major cities, greater economic productivity and above all the moving of a significant number of people out of poverty.
Government investments in rural-to-urban infrastructure, Special Economic Zones (SEZ), would not just create direct jobs but would lead to greater productivity by linking production to markets.
The realisation of Dongo Kundu and Konza cities would expand job opportunities if investors sought to take advantage of special tax arrangements.
There is a need to extend these opportunities to cities like Narok, Kisumu, Kisii, Kakamega, Kitale, Eldoret, Nyeri, Meru, Kitui, Lamu and Garissa, as a strategy to boost local employment and penetrate unchartered markets such as those in neighbouring countries, and increase intra-African trade.
Nurturing innovation and creativity is perhaps the ultimate source of employment creation. To illustrate the role of innovation, one needs to look at the impact of M-Pesa. It has not just created thousands of jobs but enhanced productivity and expanded the economy in ways we never anticipated.
This in itself should have raised our curiosity, to begin exploring ways of engendering a culture of creating new solutions to our problems.
The Japanese, for example, developed a philosophy, Kaizen, which is deeply rooted in their culture from several centuries ago, to continuously improve their products.
Two weeks ago, I had the privilege of giving a keynote speech on the Kaizen philosophy to members of the Kenya Association of Manufacturers. The reaction from the audience was such that if we could inculcate this philosophy among our people, we could become more competitive and create more jobs.
The philosophy is anchored on two other ideas, Monozukuri-Hitozukuri. Whilst Mono refers to thing or things, and Zukuri is making, Hito refers to person or persons, and Zukuri means educating and training a person/persons to become experts in making things.
THE UGALI PROBLEM
The Japanese generally refer to Monozukuri as the art of making things with: Excellence, Skill, Spirit, Zeal, Pride.
In Karakuri Kaizen, the philosophy encourages automation to enhance productivity. The principle centres around not using the human hand in making things; try to move objects automatically.
Don't spend or throw money at production challenges, but use the force of your equipment. Build it with the wisdom and creativity of the people on the shop floor.
For safety, don't just rely on paying attention but build a device that stops automatically.
There are many things within our culture that require these principles to start the journey of innovation that will propel our economies.
In Africa, we do some things the same way we did them two centuries ago. The lack of continuous change denies us the opportunity to create new jobs. For example, cooking ugali is such an odious job that in rural areas it forces women to inhale all manner of smoke as they sweat through the exercise.
If our engineering schools adopted the Japanese philosophy of Karakuri Kaizen, we would relieve our women from the enormous challenges they face while making ugali. If we created a machine to make ugali, it would be sold not only in Africa but also throughout the diaspora.
It would also become easier to control the quality and texture of ugali since quality currently depends on the mood of the woman, or man.
Ugali would eventually have a standardised recipe and production process, including tasting and designed packaging, and be commercialized. The same applies to other energy-sapping African dishes like chapati.
We could be late on industrialising the making of the chapati since the Indians are already testing several prototypes
We could do the same for mukimo, mursik, traditional soups, porridge and other Kenyan foods, even nyama choma (although some people oppose this vehemently).
Standardising our food production systems would create jobs and enable greater innovation.
RECIPE FOR HYPERTENSION
Mass production of food would make it cheaper, enabling the poor to afford it. Given the fact that our lifestyles are changing faster than we are innovating, we may soon discard our traditional dishes in favour of Western-style microwavable foods, and when that happens, we will simply become dependent on innovations that come from outside.
In several parts of Kenya and many other African countries, we have not managed to contain waste due to an inability to delay the consumption of perishables.
I have witnessed kids being forced to eat ripe bananas so they don't go to waste yet we import cereals made with dried bananas from foreign countries.
This is largely because we have not embraced the culture of continuous improvement on what we have. We can also be more curious with new technologies from elsewhere and apply them locally to limit the amount of waste, while at the same time creating jobs.
Every morning in homes of both the rich and poor in most parts of Africa, ugali that remains from the previous night is thrown away. Strangely, even dogs do not hurry up to eat the ugali remains because in their own statistical estimation, they know that it will always be there. They eat it if it is the only thing left to eat.
This waste emanates from lack of a measurement culture and taking the science of food seriously. There is no established measure of cooking ugali for one, two or five people. It is always a random exercise, which often results in lots of waste.
This is where big data will help. We need research to come up with some average number of grams that a person consumes and what it takes to produce those grams.
Forget the African culture that encourages you to cook more than you can consume so that you can be seen to be generous. That culture is costing us dearly since we import most of our cereals.
I am quite confident that lack of recipes is the cause of many hypertension cases in Africa. We are eating too much salt in food because we have no formula to guide the use of salt.
Unless we take it that we are increasing jobs in the health sector, we need multidisciplinary research to prove my opinion on the increasing cases of hypertension and other related diseases.
We are also failing to develop talent like it is done in other countries. For example, children in the US start culinary training from the age of eight, that eventually creates entrepreneurs and jobs.
A few months back, I wrote about the sorry state of our youth in Dandora. They are organizing themselves to clean up the environment in which they live. Last week I visited them again, this time to assist in evaluating what they have done. Several organizations have donated awards to those who will come up tops.
I had a chance to chart with many of these youths while evaluating different courts. Hawkins Murunga tells me he is a web designer without a job. He also tells me that several of his friends are qualified accountants and others with computer science degrees.
Quiet, slender and unassuming, Boaz Muya is a fifth-year civil engineering student at Technical University of Kenya. He is among those cleaning his court, Number Two. His case deserves a mention here.
Boaz is at home because the Engineers Board of Kenya stopped Technical University from continuing with its engineering program.
Imagine that — five years taken from a youth’s life through no fault of his own. He asks me for an internship and what I could do to help solve the injustice he and many other engineering students are facing.
He has done everything that is humanly possible to change his status by scoring extremely high grades in school in the hope that he will train and secure good employment and help his siblings, but he has been abandoned in his hour of need.
The Ministry of Education has not made any comprehensive statement on this issue affecting the training of engineers in public universities. Meanwhile, bright kids roam around, jobless, hopeless. It is as if they are being punished for their brilliance.
I decide to check on the Engineers Board of Kenya’s website, to find out what it takes to be an engineer, or take up a job as an engineer.
The website lists approved engineering programs but fails to provide more information as to what it will take prospective engineers to become engineers.
Fairness dictates that such an esteemed organisation should transparently provide adequate information so that individuals can make decisions about their career choices if the government has failed to streamline how it builds capacity to meet future challenges.
The fact remains that the world’s leading innovation and technology countries also top the list of those with the highest engineers per capita. We must facilitate training of engineers, not act as a bottleneck.
ENERGY FROM GARBAGE
If we need jobs, we must innovate. We cannot innovate without producing a critical mass of engineers. If there is a problem like the one we are facing with the Engineers Board, we must seek to solve it expeditiously.
We cannot catch up with the rest of the world if we keep frustrating our brightest minds, refusing to register them as engineers while driving on roads built by engineers from China and Turkey whom our Engineers Board has not vetted, in vehicles built by engineers over whose registration our engineers board has no control.
Yet the board-registered engineers have not succeeded in turning Kenya into an industrialised nation. Time has come when the registration board must remove the log that is in its own eye. Parliament needs to urgently look into this law and amend it as it is hindering the training of technical professionals in this country.
In Dandora, every corner you look at is a source of jobs in a sea of unemployment. This is where the entire sewerage of Nairobi comes.
We know garbage means energy, and that Dandora youth are very innovative, yet we cannot allow the youth here to convert it to energy and sell it to the national grid.
There are large swathes of land lying idle that can be put to use as small cottage industries. Good Samaritans could clear some areas and create a parking lot where the youths can create a car wash for the many matatus that ply the area. Some of the sections could be used to turn the mounds of garbage into micro-grid energy supplies at lower cost.
It is the combined policy intervention and building a culture of research and development that would lead to greater creativity and innovation.
There is no motivation for an American to develop a new ugali-cooking machine, given many Americans might not even know what ugali is. It takes our own efforts to do it.
In essence, Africa is better placed to solve its problems but we must first be curious enough to come up with innovative solutions.
Martin Joseph O'Malley, a former governor of the US state of Maryland, once said, “Progress is a choice. Job creation is a choice. Whether we give our children a future of more or a future of less — this, too, is a choice.” Let us make the choice to give our youths jobs.
The Writer is an Associate Professor at University of Nairobi’s Business School. Twitter: @bantigito