The nexus between Kenya’s job challenges and exploitation

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This article first appeared in my weekly column with the Business Daily on May 12, 2019

A few weeks ago, the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) released their annual Economic Survey which indicated fewer jobs were created in 2018, than in 2017. In 2018, a total of 840,600 new jobs were created; this figure was 897,000 in 2017. As usual, the informal sector dominated in job creation, creating 83.6 percent of all jobs. The Economic Survey also revealed that the total number of self-employed and unpaid family workers rose from 139,400 in 2017 to 152,200 people in 2018.

These statistics point to three job related challenges in Kenya. The first is that last year fewer jobs were created, despite the fact that each year about 500,000 new entrants enter the job market, let alone those already in the job market but unemployed and job-seeking. In a year where GDP growth was stronger than the previous year, why was job creation so low, particularly formal job creation?

Jobseekers in Nairobi. FILE PHOTO | NMG

(source: https://www.businessdailyafrica.com/analysis/editorials/Stop-downplaying-rising-unemployment-in-Kenya/4259378-4357102-eax4rvz/index.html)

Secondly, the survey pointed to the continued trend in the informal sector dominating job creation. But due to the lack of investment in informal businesses in terms of physical premises, access to finance, access to relevant technology, increased market access and skill updating, the quality of jobs created is low. Jobs in the informal sector are often seasonal, and do not come with the secure wages, job security, health and safety standards and benefits of formal jobs. As a result, the lived job experience of most Kenyans, is low quality. For example, informal sector manufacturing sites and markets often lack basics such as reasonable sanitation facilities, access to electricity and adequate/safe physical structures, let alone access to the specialised facilities required for their specific sectors.

Finally is the issue of involuntary self-employment and unpaid work. The story is often told of the young university student whom, after graduating, spends a few years looking for a job and seeing none in sight, decides to start a business activity in order to make an income. In a country where there is no government social security net for the unemployed, most Kenyans end up starting some type of entrepreneurial activity in order to survive. But if you were to ask many, they are involuntarily self-employed. Many want a job, but the limited availability of jobs forces most in self-employment, or even worse, unpaid work.

There is a trend in Kenya and much of Africa, of formal companies, with reasonable budgets, offering to pay people, especially the youth, in what they call ‘exposure’. The company argues that the exposure that Kenyan will get in presenting their skills at their event, is sufficient payment. And because many are desperate, and looking for a break into a stable job, especially in the formal sector, they accept ‘payment in exposure’ even for years. This is blatant exploitation. If a company uses the talents and skills of Kenyans, especially young Kenyans, as part of their company activity, they should pay for it and stop paying people via ‘exposure’. You can’t eat or pay your bills with exposure.

An environment where the demand for jobs, especially formal jobs, outstrips supply, creates conditions where exploitation runs rife. It is important that the challenges related to job creation and quality elucidated above, are not exploited but rather provide impetus for responsible and just behavior.

Anzetse Were is a development economist



TV Interview: The State of Unemployment in Kenya

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On March 4, I was part of a TV panel discussing the state of unemployment in Kenya, the concerns, dynamics and recommendations on the way forward.

Education misalignment costly for Kenya

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This article first appeared in my weekly column with the Business Daily on October 15, 2017

There is a story of bright young person in Kenya who studied biochemistry in university and graduated with first class honours. The young person was passionate about biochemistry and was determined to pursue a career in scientific research. After applying for and being turned down from several jobs with various scientific organisations, the young person gave up and decided to start a business in the transport sector. The only problem is that that he had not studied transport and logistics nor business management and thus did not have a clear idea about what starting a business in the transport sector entailed. To this day this young person ekes out a measly living in a business venture at which he’s not very good, all because he couldn’t pursue the career for which he was trained.

The story above mirrors the life of millions of Kenyans. They study hard, parents and loved ones save up to take them through to university and in the end, they end up unemployed, underemployed or mis-employed. Quality of education aside, this type of educational misalignment is costing Kenya billions in several ways.

Image result for university education Kenya

(source: http://www.dhahabu.co.ke/2016/05/27/assessing-state-university-education-kenya/)

The first is that Kenyans are spending billions getting educated in fields they end up abandoning. The hours, efforts and money spent to attain secondary and tertiary education is all wasted when the young Kenyan discovers there are no jobs in his/her area of interest and expertise. This is despite the fact that from an economic point of view, the country needs that expertise to diversify the economy and start or strengthen numerous industries. Thus, the millions poured into the education of young Kenyans go to waste as they are forced to move away from their knowledge base to pursue careers in other fields for which they did not study.

Secondly, because young people often turn to self-employment in order to survive they often end up running businesses badly because they have neither the aptitude, training or interest to run and manage a business. Not everyone is an entrepreneur, yet millions are forced to become entrepreneurs. The informal economy, where most Kenyans are employed, is full of Kenyans who turned to entrepreneurship as an act of desperation. For most, running their business is not a well thought through and strategic venture for which they have been trained, it is the final push for survival. The result is that millions of businesses are not functioning at optimal levels, indeed many are being run very badly, providing subsistence living for those running the business.

Image result for technical training Kenya

(source: https://softkenya.com/education/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/Technical-Training-Institutes-photo.gif)

This leads to the final point; the presence of millions of poorly managed businesses all of which undermine economic growth. The economy not only misses out from the economic contributions of the knowledge base of millions of Kenyans, billions of manhours are committed to badly run businesses. It’s a double whammy for the economy because the investment in education is wasted and businesses that should have never started are created out of desperation. This all leads to wasted training, poor business performance and subpar economic growth.

There is a need to address the education misalignment beleaguering the country if Kenya is to tap into the potential of its population and spur sustainable income growth and economic activity.

Anzetse Were is a development economist; anzetsew@gmail.com


What is really going on with the Kenyan Economy? TV Interviews

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On November 13, 2016 I spoke on a panel on KTN on the disparity between Kenya’s GDP growth statistics and the lived economic reality of Kenyans.

On November 9, 2016 I was part of a two person panel on K24 discussing the state of the Kenyan economy.

Factors affecting the Kenyan economy

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This article first appeared in my weekly column in the Business Daily on November 20, 2016

I have been getting several questions pertaining to what is ‘really’ happening in the Kenyan economy. Many Kenyans see incongruence between economic growth statistics and their own lived experience. According to the World Bank the economy is expected to grow by 5.9 percent in 2016; the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics reported that Kenya’s economy expanded by 6.2 percent in Q2 2016.  However, several companies have closed down operations in the country and thousands of jobs have been lost this year alone. There are numerous variables that may be informing why Kenyans do not seem to be feeling the positive effects of economic growth.

The first is that GDP growth and Ease of Doing Business data do not capture the reality of the growth and Ease of Doing Business in the informal economy where over 80 percent of employed Kenyans earn a living. Therefore, one cannot extrapolate positive overall statistics as reflective of performance of the informal economy. To what extent does Ease of Doing Business research reflect improvements in the business environment for informal businesses? Parameters such as increased ease with regards to tax compliance and business registration inform Ease of Doing Business performance, yet these are parameters with which informal businesses largely do not intersect. Thus, perhaps the incongruence stems from the fact that the economy from which millions earn a living is largely ignored by official data gathering and analytical efforts.

Image result for business kenya

(source: http://www.standardmedia.co.ke/business)

With regards to companies closing and job loss, several factors at play; I will focus on manufacturing and the banking sector. Manufacturing in this country is under threat because the cost of doing business for manufacturers in Kenya remains high particularly with regards to electricity, transport, cross-county taxes and, frankly, corruption. Additionally, the country has allowed the entry of cheap goods, particularly from Asia, to flood the market; goods that benefit from protection and subsidies in their home economies which is not reflected here. The combination of these factors is making Kenya an increasingly uncompetitive location for manufacturing which is diametrically opposed to the Government’s industrialisation agenda. With regards to the banking sector, job shedding seems to be informed by automation and the interest rate cap. Mobile and e-banking means that many customers do not need direct human contact to effect the transactions they require. The interest rate cap has removed a key risk management tool that banks used to manage information asymmetry with regards to credit worthiness. As a result, banks seem to have limited space to make numerous loans as the risk buffer is no longer present. Fewer loans means fewer staff are needed to monitor loan compliance.

Image result for manufacturing kenya

(source: http://www.theeastafrican.co.ke/image/view/-/1428984/medRes/371054/-/maxw/600/-/lpr3kh/-/manu.jpg)

Kenyans are also concerned that economic growth is not associated with job creation; the country seems to be stuck in the ‘jobless growth’ rut. Again, this is informed by several factors. Firstly, Kenya’s economic growth is services driven, and services produces far less jobs than manufacturing for example. The main services sub-sectors that are labour intense are health, education and hospitality; sub sectors such as telecoms and financial services need far less labour. It is no secret that tourism in the country has been hit leading to job losses; and even when there is marginal recovery, a limited number of jobs are created and those are seasonal. Until the manufacturing sector is given the attention it requires such that economy is driven by export-led manufacturing, the ‘jobless growth’ challenge will continue. Finally, the education system in the country is doing a gross disservice to the youth by making millions of young people essentially unemployable. 62 percent of Kenyan youth aged 15-34 years have below secondary level education. Further, Kenya is characterised by a persistent mismatch of skills between what is taught and the skill requirements of the labour market. Thus most youth are poorly educated and those who are well educated are not trained in skills the labour market seeks.

Finally, financial mismanagement at both national and county levels is compromising growth. It seems that government funds that are meant to be economically productive and generate economic activity do not reach intended projects. As long as this continues to occur, jobs and growth that could have been created by government investment and financing will not materialise.

All these factors inform the disconnect between rosy economic statistics and the reality Kenyans feel on the ground; and these will persist if there is no change in financial management and economic development strategy going forward.

Anzetse Were is a development economist; anzetsew@gmail.com

The link between unemployment and poor education

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This article first appeared in my weekly column with the Business Daily on October 2, 2016

It is no secret that Kenya has a serious unemployment problem. Kenya’s official unemployment rate stood at 9.2 percent in 2014 and a report released by the World Bank this year put Kenya’s youth (aged 15-24) unemployment rate at 17.3 percent compared to 6 percent for both Uganda and Tanzania. Unemployment rate refers to the share of the labour force that is without work but available for and seeking employment. Therefore those who are under-employed or (poorly) self-employed are not captured in this figure. If both these categories were included, the number would be much higher. Some put the unemployment rate at 40 percent.

Education is linked to unemployment in Kenya. At the moment, the education system is failing Kenyan youth miserably. In terms of primary and secondary education, FSD points out that although Kenya implemented universal primary education additional costs of uniforms and books prevent many from attending school. And even when families who are able to pay for primary school costs they often cannot afford the fees to pay for secondary school. Secondary schooling is expensive and rarely accessible in underserved areas.


(source: https://readtiger.com/img/wkp/en/Kenya_class.jpg)

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. As a study by the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT) points out, 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 jobs that are more secure and provide good working conditions and decent pay.

As it stands, Kenyan youth are barely making it to secondary school and thus are relegated to never having an opportunity to have a job that is stable and well remunerated due to the high qualification requirements of formal employment. Further, often poorly educated Kenyans are too poorly equipped to competently manage small businesses leading to low levels of productivity and profitability that characterise the informal economy. In short, the lack of access to education relegates millions of Kenyans to a cycle of poverty as they do not qualify for ‘good’ formal jobs and often do not have the skills sets to be effectively self-employed.

Sadly even of those who do attain tertiary education, most are ill-equipped to be absorbed into employment due to the disconnect between what is taught at universities and what the labour market actually requires. The JKUAT study makes the point that the commercialisation of tertiary education in Kenya has led to overcrowding in the institutions due to the increase in enrolment and this ‘massification’ policy by universities is characterised by degree programmes that do not address the job market. University administrations compromise the quality of education by accepting students without improving facilities to absorb them and seem focused on financial gain when expanding education programmes. As a result, millions of Kenyans are poorly trained and become frustrated graduates who cannot find employment.


(source: http://mkenyaujerumani.de/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/Kenyans-graduating-graduation-Kenya-students-University.jpg)

Another report released by the World Bank this year 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. Kenya’s post-secondary qualifications are not adequately skilling young people, and thus many graduates are unable to find jobs due to their poor skills sets, despite the achievement of tertiary qualifications. Indeed, according to the World Bank’s Enterprise Survey for Kenya, about 30 percent of firms surveyed stated an inadequately skilled workforce as the most important constraint inhibiting growth.

Clearly the education system in Kenya is creating a mass of young people who do not have the skills required for employment or self-employment. In this failure Kenya is not only exacerbating the unemployment problem, the country is failing to leverage the demographic dividend of a young and active labour force. It is crucial that this failure in the education system is addressed if Kenya is to achieve Vision 2030.

Anzetse Were is a development economist; anzestew@gmail.com

The implications of the digital revolution for Africa

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This article first appeared in my weekly column with the Business Daily on February 14, 2016

Last week the World Bank released their World Development Report (WDR) that focused on the digital revolution and how it has allowed some to reap digital dividends. These dividends are growth for businesses, job creation for people and better service delivery by government. Further digital technologies have supported development by promoting innovation, efficiency and inclusion.

(source: http://www.worldbank.org/content/dam/photos/780×439/2016/feb/ca-wdr-2016-780.jpg)

However, the report argues that there is a growing digital divide as 60 percent of the world’s population is still offline and 2 billion people do not own a mobile phone. In addition the spread of digital technologies have spread unevenly; men are more likely to be connected than women, those in urban areas are more connected than rural areas and the young are more integrated than the old. In short, young males in urban areas are far better poised to reap digital dividends than old women in rural areas. Further, as digital technologies have spread, there are new risks that mitigate the spread of the benefits. These new risks include the fact that digital technologies are used by autocratic governments to control access to information in a manner deepens control rather than empowerment and inclusion. Digital technologies also create new regulatory uncertainties as new apps and tools are created that cross sectors. For example, should Uber, which is active in Kenya, be regulated as a transport service or as an ICT tool? Further, if the business environment is not open and competitive, digital technologies can create a concentration of market power and monopolies.

The report speaks of analogue components that have to be focused on as the digital revolution continues to unfold to ensure dividends rather than detriments preponderate. These are rules and regulations that promote competition and entry, skills that allow populations to leverage technology rather than be replaced by it, and institutions that are accountable to citizens.

Given this background, there key questions to be asked. The first is that jobs are being automated into extinction and this has two-fold negative implications for countries such as Kenya. The first is Kenya has a serious problem with unemployment, thus automation may exacerbate the unemployment problem. It must be asked whether the jobs created by digital technologies will grow at a rate faster than the job attrition it causes. Secondly, the types of jobs being replaced are low skilled jobs often occupied by the least educated members of society. If such people are to lose their jobs due to digital technologies, their future looks grim as they typically will not have the skills sets required for ‘white collar’ jobs less threatened by digital technologies. The low skilled segment of the population may find themselves competing for fewer jobs without the opportunity to re-skill and take on new roles.

Further, will the rise of digital technologies cause agrarian economies such as Kenya to by-pass industry all together? Advanced economies benefitted from the Industrial Revolution which employed millions of people and created the robust foundation of manufacturing and the export of goods. Africa has been undergoing premature deindustrialisation due to globalisation and trade which have hollowed out industry on the continent as other countries supply finished goods for African consumers. The uptake of digital technologies may exacerbate this as human labour cannot compete with cheaper technologies in terms of cost and efficiency. In fact some western companies have brought production back to automated factories by-passing the need to hunt for cheap labour. Will digital technologies therefore exacerbate the premature industrialisation Africa is already experiencing? The Financial Times surmises that in the absence of industrialisation as a path towards economic development, the best hope for developing and emerging economies is to train workers that are more highly skilled. Is this feasible in Kenya and Africa?

(source: https://centerforfinancialinclusionblog.files.wordpress.com/2012/10/samasource-3.jpg)

Therefore, although there are great benefits to be reaped by the digital revolution, new risks have to be managed. Momentum for the digital revolution is substantial. Therefore, governments ought to create policies that ensure an equitable spread of digital dividends, effort should be made to ensure all levels of private sector reap the benefits, and finally Kenya needs to rethink its education system to ensure labour is being skilled in a manner that functions effectively in the context of a digital economy.

Anzetse Were is a development economist; anzetsew@gmail.com