This article first appeared in my weekly column with the Business Daily on March 5, 2017
A few weeks ago, a local television station aired the story of a young man who is an orphan, had been admitted to some of the most prestigious learning institutions in the country but was now living the life of a pauper. Dishevelled and unkempt, he looked like he was living the life of a homeless man; yet when he spoke, his clarity of mind and intelligence were unquestionable. This week a video of African children in the Congo working in mines went viral. The two children in question were eight and eleven year old boys, working in awful and dangerous conditions, barely making income and living a life of destitution and hopelessness. Why are these stories important? They are important as they reveal the extent to Africa is mismanaging the potential and promise of young people on the continent.
The average age of an African is 19.5 years, yet the average age of an African leader is 65. Is there any wonder then, as to why Africa’s leaders seems to be chronically unable to catalyse a young labour force and apply it to the development of young people themselves, that of their countries and the continent at large? In fact, sometimes it seems youth are seen as a demographic liability, not asset.
In Kenya the rate of youth unemployment is dire; 80 percent of those unemployed are under the age of 35. There are several factors that contribute to this figure the first of which is poor education. The Brookings Institution points out that 62 percent of Kenyan youth aged 15-34 years have below secondary level education, 34 percent have secondary education, and only 1 percent have university education. Skills are a crucial path out of poverty; indeed education makes it more likely for Kenyans to not just to be employed, but to hold formal jobs that are more secure and provide good working conditions and decent pay. So the fact that the country is doing such a poor job in educating the youth translates to the relegation of those young people to the periphery of the promise of the country.
Secondly, even among those who are educated, most are ill-equipped to be absorbed into employment. A study by JKUAT made the point that the commercialisation of tertiary education in Kenya has led to overcrowding in the institutions due to the increase in enrolment. This ‘massification’ policy by universities is characterised by degree programmes that do not address the job market. As a result, millions of Kenyans are poorly trained and become frustrated graduates who cannot find employment. Another report released by the World Bank stated that tertiary education in Kenya is characterised by a persistent mismatch of skills between what is taught and the requirements in the labour market. Thus, even education itself does not guarantee employment in this country.
Thirdly, due to the aforementioned dynamics, most young people are left to fend for themselves, invariably in the informal economy. The informal economy employs 80 percent of Kenyans and yet this sector of the economy is grossly neglected. Sadly in many ways, the neglect of the informal economy is the neglect of the youth as it is only in this sector that most youth with limited resources are able to start ‘hustling’ and earn a living. The cost of formalisation from tax payments to compliance to minimum wage, means that the informal sector is the only choice, as it has the lowest barriers of entry for economic enterprise.
The good news is that it is not too late to act, but the nature of action must be very different to ongoing activities. At the moment, most youth interventions either operate in silos with the limited creation of long lasting structures and partnerships; are funded unsustainably where programs end when donors pull out; or provide interventions that do not address the needs of the youth effectively (think Youth Fund). Youth need a combination of on-going employment opportunity; credit lines for enterprises through the deployment of blended financial vehicles (grants AND loans); skills upgrading (life, business, management, financial and technical skills) and mentorship. Only in doing this will the country, and indeed continent, leverage the demographic dividend that is the young people of Africa.
Anzetse Were is a development economist; firstname.lastname@example.org