Youth unemployment

A ticking time bomb

Youth unemployment is a massive problem in Kenya, as a current book on the subject confirms. The 21 authors – 18 of them Kenyans – describe and discuss the issue, point to job opportunities and explain what needs to be done to improve the situation. The book was inspired by a research project that involved German and Kenyan students and was undertaken in Kenya in 2013.
The majority of young people in Kenya rely for employment on the informal sector: a market in Nairobi, Kenya. Schytte/Lineair The majority of young people in Kenya rely for employment on the informal sector: a market in Nairobi, Kenya.

A handcart trundles through Nairobi’s busy streets. A nuisance for motorists, certainly. But also a signal: an unemployed young man has set up in business – as a delivery man. Prior to that, he probably survived on casual jobs. No one can say exactly how many people are unemployed in Kenya. 32 % of the population are aged between 10 and 24; 78 % are under 35. Eight-hundred thousand school-leavers a year enter the labour market and few of them find work. An estimated 70 % of young people are jobless. That is an economic, political and social problem.

The authors of the book “Youth Unemployment in Kenya” decry the institutional obstacles placed in young job-seekers’ path. But they also criticise the attitude of young people themselves, pointing out that many have poor communication skills, are unreliable and want to make quick money with little effort. That makes them unattractive to employers and is certainly a barrier to setting up in business. In short, the authors see the need for a stronger work ethic and life skills. They criticise the Kenyan education system for focusing on mindless memorisation and exam-oriented study rather than teaching students to understand, develop ideas and think for themselves. This – the authors point out – is a vital requirement for entrepreneurship.

The Kenyan education system is seen as an institution in need of radical reform. The authors argue that schools need to offer a comprehensive education for life, which includes preparing students adequately for working life. Kenya has technical schools that are supposed to provide vocational training. But they are too intellectual and lack practical relevance, the authors say. In Europe – it is pointed out – the countries that operate a dual vocational training system have the lowest rates of youth unemployment. One contributor thus presents a description of the German system of dual vocational education – for inspiration, not imitation.

Work opportunities

Kenya is one of the leaders in communications technology on the African continent (see interview pp. 18-19 and e-Paper D+C/E+Z 2016/06, pp. 34-35). The sector offers job prospects and attracts many young university graduates. But the opportunities are naturally limited, so the authors pin hopes on programmes that encourage young people to work in the agricultural sector – even if that is what they previously sought to escape. In the West of Kenya, for example, the Anglican Church runs a programme that pushes farming as a business opportunity. The programme’s objective is to overcome existing hurdles – and not least to persuade old farmers that it is time to hand over land for the younger generation to farm. Kenya needs enterprising farmers. The Mazingira Institute in Nairobi trains largely young women for the practice of “urban agriculture”. This means using small backyards or other patches of uncultivated urban land to grow vegetables or to rear chickens. Participants in the programme receive basic agricultural training and thus develop skills that enable them to make a modest living.

Because the chance of getting a job in the regular labour market is so minute – the authors report – young people have turned to the informal sector to try and make a living. Most cases of this occur in slum districts, which have developed an economic structure of their own. Improvisation, creativity and energy have gone into the establishment of small businesses that are capable of feeding a family. The tiny outdoor street-corner restaurant is cited as an example. It is part of what is known as the “jua kali” sector, which also includes fix-it services offered by carpenters, car mechanics and metalworkers as well as motorcycle taxi (boda boda) businesses, street stalls, water transport services and waste collection and recycling operations. The authors see this as evidence of the informal sector’s importance for the economy as a whole.

Graduates of Kenya’s numerous universities appear to have better employment opportunities than slum-dwellers, but, according to the authors, their privileged position is eroded by the quality of the education they receive. This is because they are totally unprepared for the labour market, which gives rise to frustration among employers and the young people alike. Two other youth groups are identified in the book as having specific problems in the job market: women and people with disabilities. They encounter prejudice – some of it rooted in tradition – and they are consequently exposed to exploitation and discrimination.

The Kenyan government is fully aware of the desperate plight of unemployed youth. The problem is largely systemic, which is why policymakers have launched various programmes aimed at creating employment opportunities for young people. For example, young entrepreneurs are given special consideration when public contracts are put out to tender. The state sets aside a substantial budget for youth development. One programme in place is supported by UN-Habitat and works through “one stop centres” where young people can gain hands-on administrative and entrepreneurial experience; at the same time, they receive training and support in a number of areas, such as health care, administration, communications technology, environment and livelihood. The authors welcome the government programmes, but also criticise the major bureaucratic obstacles that have significantly undermined their success. They consider a well-crafted, coordinated national plan for youth employment to be essential.

One author complains that not enough is done to cater for young people’s reproductive health needs. This is due to an insufficient budget, poorly equipped youth centres and a population policy out of step with the times. As a result, young people are exposed to the risks of HIV/AIDS, unplanned pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases. A ray of hope for skilled youth is seen by a former assistant education minister in the opportunities for Kenya to respond to demand for highly skilled labour in other parts of the world. At present, however, this may sound like pie in the sky because Kenya itself is in need of well-trained skilled workers.

The book describes and discusses youth unemployment in Kenya from various angles and not just as a problem. It also highlights the creative and entrepreneurial power that resides in Kenyan youth. The problem is not confined to Kenya; it exists in many African countries, sometimes deeply rooted in society. So the handcart trundling through Nairobi’s busy streets will be a nuisance for rich motorists for a long time yet.

Helmut Danner

Danner, H., Kerretts-Makau, M., Nebe, J. M.( ed.), 2016:
Youth unemployment in Kenya – A ticking time bomb. Nairobi: Longhorn.

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