Two ground rules are useful when discussing the country’s population growth and the challenges they present. One should be rational and dispassionate regarding the statistics and look at the challenges and the solutions in as holistic and proactive a manner as possible.
Yes, the figures show the challenges are monumental but we should be looking at how we convert the ‘youth bulge’ into a positive ‘demographic dividend’. In short, what can easily weigh down a country’s development can be turned into being a dynamo for positive economic growth and social transformation.
Let us look at some figures. Our population of about 48 plus million is growing at around 1.25 million people every year. Convert that into the extra demand on our already overburdened public health and education sectors and the need to provide around one million gainful opportunities every year and one can see the daunting task ahead.
Kenya’s population growth rate is around 2.9 per cent per annum, which is still relatively high.
The median age of Kenya’s population is 18 years and around 60 per cent of Kenyans are 25 years or below. These two statistics not only show that the bulk of the population is youthful but also the massive physical, logistical and financial demands that are being made and will be made on the government and society as a whole.
Looking at it proactively Kenya’s economic growth must be in excess of 7 per cent per annum to bend that curve of poverty. Anything below that means the country is running to stand still or at risk of backsliding.
All things being equal, an economic growth rate of 7 per cent plus should result in up to one million jobs and gainful opportunities being created annually. The caution couched in the words “all things being equal” is that this is an exceedingly demanding challenge and can only be gained in a conducive, proactive operating environment.
Another way to look at it is that Kenya’s recent annual economic growth rate has been hovering around the 5 per cent to 6 per cent range and so we are falling short of the challenge.
One of the quickest and most effective ways to add 2 per cent to 3 per cent on to our annual economic growth rate is by significantly reducing corruption.
This is for the simple reason that corruption robs us of around 3 per cent annual economic growth each and every year.
If President Kenyatta does succeed in breaking the backbone of the corruption pandemic, he will leave not only that legacy but also the legacy that he unlocked the economic growth that it has been stealing year in, year out. That will indeed be a commendable achievement.
That said, it must be accepted that such an action must be done in tandem with several others.
A jump in economic growth will spur a number of activities and in turn employment opportunities.
This begs the question as to whether we have the right education mix. Are we training too many people for white collar jobs and not enough for the relevant skills that are required?
Even now there is a shortage of skills in a number of areas. Greater economic activity will exacerbate the skills shortage, which in turn could become a handbrake on that additional growth we are seeking.
We need to take a long hard look at all levels of our education system and reshape and rejig it so it is more focused on meeting the demands and skills the country needs. At the same time, we need to sponsor programmes that will assist and re-equip youth to attain the skills the market is looking for tomorrow, next year and beyond.
Remember this takes time so the sooner we start the better prepared we will be. It is important to go beyond retuning the education and skills side to meet the current and future labour demands. We need to look at the gaps and deficiencies in our economy and work towards plugging them. In turn more activities and opportunities will be created.
For example, Kenya is a major importer of a number of food items such as wheat, rice, sugar and maize. The latter, along with potatoes and onions, are coming from Tanzania.
Conversely the vast majority of agriculture in Kenya is rain-fed. Attempts to reduce that imbalance with irrigation projects have had mixed results. The Galana Kululu irrigation project was once lauded as the one that would break that mould. The project is now largely mothballed with the Israeli technical advisory team walking away from it in frustration.
That should not and must not happen if we are to reduce some of our deficits and shortfalls and become more self-sufficient in for example food production and in turn create more employment opportunities.
Ditto the largely dilapidated sugar factories of Nzioa, Chemelil, Muhoroni and Sony which are struggling to operate. Between them, a sea of poverty has been created. If the fortunes of those entities positively changed the livelihoods of around five million people would be uplifted.
We must work expeditiously to turn our ‘youth bulge’ into that ‘demographic dividend’.
Mr Shaw is an economic and public policy analyst. [email protected]