Thinking Differently on Youth Unemployment in Kenya

This is a follow-up on a brief presentation I made in a small forum about youth unemployment in Africa, last week in Washington DC.

Most people acknowledge that we have a big problem in our hands here. The rate of unemployment in Kenya in 2001 was 40%. In 2013, this rate had significantly reduced to… 40%. As we speak now, despite the changes in economy, leadership, increase in educational institutions, investment, funding and youth development programs, the rate is still at 40% (Source: CIA). In 2016, over 500, 000 young people sat for their high school exams. About 88, 000 made it to college and higher education opportunities. The other over 400, 000 young people remain in the dark. We do not know what to do with them. Nigerian entrepreneur Tony Elumelu has been proactive in dealing with this unemployment issue by funding startups in a ten-million dollar project. While this could help, one would still wonder why the situation remains constant even as all other factors change. And that’s exactly what I wish to tackle here.

There’s a common joke these days that if you throw a stone in the streets of Nairobi, you’ll most likely hit a DJ or photographer, or something close. Kenyans on twitter are some of the most creative and entertaining fellows on earth. The young population in this country thrives in creativity. They seek skills based on their creative inclinations and hobbies. But the government and its systems focus their efforts on taking these young people to careers that have been occupied by 40% of the population for the longest time. Just check the government of Kenya website and go straight to the Ministry of public service, youth and gender affairs.There’s a 140-page document there that outlines the government’s strategy in dealing with the issue of unemployment. It is titled ” Kenya Youth Employment and Opportunities Project” You’ll probably not read the document, so I read it for you.

First, the government acknowledges that there is a huge skills gap (both soft skills and hard skills) between the people who graduate from Kenyan colleges and what the job market needs. In doing this, they accept that we do not exactly have a labor force as skilled enough as we would wish.
Secondly, they have decided to introduce new means to improve this situation. This will be done by providing that extra training through collaborations with the private sector where young people will go through work induction programs (I have gone through one myself, but it wasn’t a government program). After that, the national industrial training authority (NITA) seeks placement for these young people in Kenyan companies and institutions. Good idea, but unlikely to help the situation.

If you read the whole document, there’s no analysis of Kenya’s human capital. Art, media, social media and creativity are not mentioned at all, even though these are the things that interest our young population the most. The process is simply leading us back to the 40%. Acknowledging that the education system is neither creating a skilled labor force nor producing proactive society shapers should lead to comprehensive education reforms, not extra programs. Check out Finland, Switzerland and Canada and borrow their strategies in education. Something has got to change in the way we get trained.

Now if I had my way, I would seek to capitalize in Kenya’s fledgling talents and the creative industries. These are areas that are not only highly likely to improve our economy through tourism, exports and whatnot, but also slash the unemployment rate significantly. We need to create an Africa where young people do not keep begging for opportunities to show what they can do, from people who want to see what young people can do before they give them the opportunity. The young should be able to create their own opportunities and move forward with them. That’s the way to go past 40%.

Art, freedom and creativity will change society faster than politics.

Now some strategies could be considered in terms of creating the perfect climate for the growth of the creative industries. Promoting cultural amenities for the purpose of attracting economic investment and skilled workers; promoting community development through artistic, cultural or creative policies; promoting community and neighborhood revitalization through artistic measures and strategies that emphasize creativity; creating economic or job clusters based on creative businesses, including linking those businesses with noncultural businesses; providing training and professional development for arts, cultural and creative entrepreneurs; creating arts-specific incubators or dedicated low-cost space and services to support artistic, cultural or creative professionals; branding communities; creating arts, cultural, entertainment, historic or heritage districts; providing economic or regulatory support for combined residential and commercial space for artists; arts-specific and general public venues; events; urban design and reuse of existing sites for arts and culture purposes; supporting temporary and permanent public art projects; and more ideas like these. This has to be deliberate all through the counties of Kenya, with a national arts council to oversee smaller councils in the counties that will fund and promote creative projects.

The purpose is to create a balance between economic growth and the social needs of the people. The average Kenyan doesn’t spend time thinking about investors and the stock exchange. People think about their social needs; how they will eat, sleep, dress, enjoy their life. Money comes in to meet these needs. Shrewd investors invest in the social needs of the society, and there’s no better way to build an economy than to capitalize on creative human capital.

Let’s think about it. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for!

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