How Kenya can Leverage the Youth Dividend

Posted on

This article first appeared in my weekly column with the Business Daily on April 7, 2019

The average age of an African is 18, and the average age of a Kenyan is 19. While there has been an appreciation of how such a young population can be a demographic dividend or liability, far less attention has been focused on making sure the former happens. And the reality is that channelling the productive and energetic forces of young Africans is a multi-disciplinary challenge. Government has to better embed inter-ministerial activity such that young people are sufficiently nourished and of good health and then effectively linked to appropriate educational programs and then linked to the labour market. Private sector has to be more effective in linking the skills required to the educational curriculum provide by both government and private sector institutions. They then have to link education outcomes to productivity and income growth such the aggregate demand of products produced from private sector consistently increases. In short, the only way Africa and Kenya can ensure that the youth are not neglected and locked out of prosperity is through interdisciplinary activity focused on coordinated private sector activity linked to coordinated government action.

Image result for Kenyan youth


A key point of focus where government and private sector activity can converge to leverage Kenya and Africa’s youthfulness is in business development. And let’s be clear on what is being proposed here. The proposition is not that every young person goes out and try to entrepreneur themselves out of poverty. That is an unfair burden not only because not every young person is an entrepreneur but also because private and public sectors, even within themselves, do not have the structures that support young entrepreneurs and are currently are not very good at scaling existing business to enhance job creation and income growth for the youth. There are two actions that can be done by both private and public sector to enhance private sector growth with a youth focus.

First, is to more deliberately support business activity by the youth. And that does not mean government Youth Funds that make requirements of young people such as forming groups in order to qualify. Such requirements are more focused on government de-risking than creating viable financing options for young and often inexperienced entrepreneurs. It is important that government, private sector, grantmakers and development finance create inter-sectoral consortiums that more effectively leverage the types and scale of support targeted at young entrepreneurs with an ecosystem of support linked to financing. This is the expensive and time-consuming side of youth business development few seem willing to do.

Secondly, is to better link youth education with private sector skill requirements. And here government and private sector really have to get out of their formal mandates and have a sincere commitment to solving this serious problem. Everyone will tell you money is the issue; that if they had more money they could do more. Well it seems the money problem won’t be fixed in the near future because of a blend of limited government budgets and private sector profit expectations. Thus what is required is an aggregator of efforts in linking education-labour market skills gaps by both private and public sectors; and this should be financed by both parties as they both stand to benefit. Let government and private sector bodies more deliberately aggregate and coordinate education and youth skills programs towards a joint objective. Perhaps in doing so youth will better linked to labour markets which can then drive productivity, profit gains and leverage the African youth dividend.

Anzetse Were is a development economist

How Africa can leverage its youth in three ways

Posted on

This article first appeared in my weekly column with the Business Daily on October 14, 2018

Africa is young in three ways: young economy, young political system and a young population. These three variables present Africa with unique challenges and opportunities. Yet Africa lives in a world with many old countries with far more experience. How does Africa leverage her youth?

To be clear, there are key challenges linked to being young and Africa is young in terms of modern political economy structures. On average, African countries, as currently delineated, are about 50 years old or younger. Juxtapose that with at least 400 years of slavery and 200 years of ‘exploration’ and colonialism. It’s a marvel that Africa still functions. The point is that, under the current economic structure, Africa is young in three ways: young economy, young political system and young population. Each variable has its challenges and strengths.

Image result for africa


In terms of being a young economy, key challenges of being a young economy is economic immaturity, shallow financial markets, massive informality, cartels, and a poor economic data and knowledge base. These are real challenges that constrain the economic prosperity of the continent. There is often the perception that Africa is ‘inherently economically incompetent’. No. We are just young and the same struggle we are having is what other nations have done to get where they are. But there advantages to being a young economy: We have the opportunity to leapfrog, the opportunity to learn from older countries and leverage economic experience from others to Africa’s gain and we have the chance to create an economic path the world has never seen. Africa has that power.

In terms of being a young political system, there are key challenges: kleptocracy, corruption, and a concentration of political power. This feature is evident in the acrimonious relationship between African governments and their publics. But there are advantages to a young political system namely a young, engaged an invested populace; an opportunity to influence the country’s political path; and an opportunity to craft a political ideology that benefits Africa. So be aware that Africa is crafting its own political identity. And it will be done in a manner that is aware of all the geopolitical interests others have on the continent. It will be Africa front and centre.

Image result for kenya youth


And thirdly, Africa has a young population which is linked with the following challenges: unemployment, idleness and hopelessness, and civil instability. Africa has to leverage its population dividend or be swallowed by it. But a young population has its advantages such as: an energetic and deep labour pool; opportunity to skill up labour appropriately, and a massive young market. Not only is the African population growing in size, it’s growing in GDP per capita. Africa is a young, massive and lucrative market.

It is up to Africa to decide how to leverage our youth in three ways. And I am confident that we will.

Anzetse Were is a development economist;


Neglecting the youth hampers the development of Africa

Posted on

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.

Related image


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;


Development yet to get right fuel in yearly allocations

Posted on Updated on

This article first appeared in my column with the Business Daily on June 21, 2015

The 2015/16 Budget of more than Sh2 trillion indicates the government will raise expenditure by 17 per cent. But is the budget pro-development? A useful way of determining whether development is the focus of a Budget is looking at allocations to health, education, water and youth.Health and education are important as they invest in the country’s human capital that often drives economic growth and development. Water is important as a basic human right.

Given that more than a third of the population is youth (aged 18-35), it is important the segment get budget support to build up skills, employability and employment opportunities for Kenya to reap the youth dividend of innovation, energy and affordable labour.


In addition to this, one should take note of the ratio between allocations and expenditure related to recurrent versus development costs; a pro-development budget has higher outlay for development.

A quick analysis of the key sectors reveals education previously got 26 per cent of the total; in this Budget that figure is 22 per cent. The last budget allocated four per cent to health; it is unchanged. Water (and regional development) got four per cent in both budgets. In the last budget, youth (alongside gender and culture) received less than one per cent, the same as this year.

Juxtapose these percentages with security (15 per cent) and infrastructure and energy (27 per cent), both of which the government openly stated are top priorities.

Although one can argue peace and infrastructure are the foundations of development, but shouldn’t the focus be promoting and defending national economic development? Because without defeating poverty, Kenya will remain weak and vulnerable, no matter how many roads and fighter jets it has.


The 2015/16 Budget seems to say development-related sectors are becoming less of a priority for government. However, there are some steps the Budget takes that are pro-development; for example, an additional pro-youth element of the budget is rebates to corporate bodies hiring new graduates and supporting them to build the relevant skills and experience.

To qualify, employers must provide internships/apprenticeships to a minimum of 10 youths for a period of six to 12 months. Although this is commendable it may be a misplaced strategy because it doesn’t get to the root of the problem: the failure to offer relevant curricula.

Perhaps, the government should consider deploying strategies to revamp training offered in the first place.

One also has to analyse allocations to recurrent versus development expenditure and audit that spending.

International Budget Partnership (IBP) indicates that in 2013/14, the government allocated 58 per cent of the Budget to recurrent but spent 78 per cent on the same. In 2014/15, recurrent was allocated 58 per cent but IBP projects government will eat into 63 per cent of the Budget.

This year, the recurrent versus development stands at 52 per cent to 48 per cent. In short, in all the past three budgets, recurrent allocations trump development and even worse, actual recurrent is higher than what was allocated. This is a concern.


Also note that an analysis of Q4 2014 of the budget by the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) revealed a failure to spend 48 per cent of the development budget.

So, the government is overspending on recurrent expenditure such as salaries but underspending on development. The government would do well to push for more austerity in recurrent expenditure.

Ms Were is a development economist.; @anzetse

What the latest economic growth data in Kenya really mean

Posted on Updated on

This article was first published in the Business Daily on January 11, 2015

Last year’s Q3 gross domestic product (GDP) figures show the economy expanded by 5.5 per cent compared to a revised 6.2 per cent in the same period in 2013. The growth was mainly supported by strong activity in construction, finance and insurance, trade, information and communication, and agriculture and forestry.All sectors recorded positive growth except accommodation and food services (hotels and restaurants) that have consistently been on a decline since last year.


But what do these growth figures really mean? Underlying the GDP growth snapshots are some long-term structures that should be analysed and of which Kenyans must be cognisant.The first question is the extent to which all Kenyans are benefiting from growth. The latest UN Human Development Report ranks Kenya 147 out of 187 countries and although there has been a rise in human development since the 1990s, only a small section of the population has gained.To illustrate, the incomes of the richest 20 per cent have risen steadily and now stand at 11 times more than those of the poorest 20 per cent.In fact, a country report by the Africa Development Bank states that the biggest challenge is not raising GDP but ensuring inclusion.There is a widening gap between the rich and poor with the creation of a dual economy where the rich prosper and the poor continue to struggle.This can be attributed to an underdeveloped social security net that does not provide consistent and sufficient income support to the poorest.The core concern with inequitable growth is not just the ideological issues around fairness and justice but the reality that while the poor have a high propensity to consume, they lack the disposable income to engage in many of the spending and profit-making activities that spur investment and growth.


As a University of Nairobi analyst said, this creates a vicious cycle in which low growth results in high poverty that in turn abets low growth.Today, each of the 42 million Kenyans would earn Sh189,624 ($2,158) yearly if income was distributed equitably. Sadly, the manner in which GDP growth is currently structured only encourages economic dualism.In addition, the growth structure ensures that the youth are at best fringe beneficiaries of the economic largesse, which elicits the feeling that they are in a no-win situation with the older generation.The International Labour Office (ILO) points out that while young women and men account for 37 per cent of the working-age population, their participation in employment is less than 20 per cent.Due to difficulties in securing jobs, the youth feel the best option is to leave the labour market. This leaves them more vulnerable to chronic unemployment or eking out a living in a tough economy.The result of this skewed system is frustration and dissatisfaction, coupled with security concerns as the jobless youth engage in crime to survive. Their exclusion from mainstream economic activity can create discontent and another “Arab Spring”.


Linked to the youth issue is the fact that these relatively healthy GDP figures mask the reality of jobless growth. This is where the economy experiences growth amidst decreasing employment.Indeed, the ILO released a report last year stating little progress is being made in reducing working poverty and vulnerable forms of employment such as informal jobs and undeclared work.Unemployment in Kenya stands at more than 13 per cent, masking the enormity of the labour market challenges where a significant proportion of the population is inactive rather than unemployed. Of the employed, many are engaged in informal jobs.So while GDP figures are important, it is crucial we foster equitable and inclusive growth as well as develop job creation strategies to address the burgeoning chronic unemployment and underemployment.