The Dirty Little Secret of an African Beacon - OZY | A Modern Media Company

The Dirty Little Secret of an African Beacon

The Dirty Little Secret of an African Beacon

By Amanda Sperber


Because unemployment is a global problem, and Kenya is a canary in the coal mine.

By Amanda Sperber

It’s ironic that 28-year-old Dorothy Ambogo calls herself a “beneficiary” of the Kenya Youth Empowerment Program, known as KEPSA — a government project supported by the World Bank that closed earlier this year. She finished her six-month course, three months of training and a three-month internship more than two years ago. The ironic part? She’s unemployed and hasn’t worked a day since she finished the program.  

Even though Kenya is one of Africa’s fastest-growing economies, Ambogo’s story is becoming increasingly familiar: The country is jobless — unemployment runs as high as 35 percent in some areas — and 80 percent of the unemployed are under the age of 35, according to Building Future Markets. Turning economic growth into stable employment is proving more difficult, but a cross section of NGOs, startups, think tanks and private companies are working to address the problem and showing some signs of success.

You might even be priming the ‘ticking time bomb.’

Generation Kenya, for example, trains young Kenyans in sales and retail and connects them to private-sector employment. It placed 1,000 of its graduates in jobs in 2015, its pilot year, and aims to scale that up to 50,000 by 2019. Funded by USAID and supported with staff from management consulting firm McKinsey, Generation Kenya aims to help those with secondary schooling get focused skills training.

Similarly, Africa Yoga Project (AYP) has trained and employed more than 100 yoga teachers who cater to the burgeoning middle class and expat communities in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi. Now, AYP is expanding its teacher training to Uganda, Rwanda and South Africa. Food- and service-delivery companies like Jumia Food, Sendy, Lynk and countless others have also sprouted up in recent years to gratify the growing disposable-income sect. The government, meanwhile, created 800,000 jobs last year in the sectors of agriculture (70 percent of Kenyans make their living from farming), real estate, finance and insurance, according to Dr. Geoffrey Mwau, director general for budget, fiscal and economic affairs.

Sadly, these efforts don’t come close to addressing the staggering needs of the unemployed millions, because the biggest problem is structural — poor infrastructure, lack of capital and corruption. “Kenya still needs to solve basic things, such as managing traffic, settling payments at small scale and other more pressing issues that provide business opportunity,” says Kwame Owino, CEO of the Institute of Economic Affairs in Kenya. Dr. Mwau says simply improving the ease of doing business with basics like regular electricity — a monkey tripped a transformer earlier this year, triggering a nationwide blackout for hours — would go a long way.

What’s more, the number of employers willing to hire workers at decent wages simply can’t keep up with an ever-expanding workforce. “Many policymakers are not working to address where jobs would come from,” says Dr. Philip Mader, a research fellow at the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex. Expanding the infrastructure to create jobs is expensive and dangerous, he explains. But so too is investing in training programs when there’s no demand for those skills. “You might even be priming the ‘ticking time bomb,’ ” he warns, giving young Kenyans hope that getting an education and having a good work ethic will help them get ahead, only to let them be deflated by a dismal labor market. 

It’s also hard to provide capital for would-be entrepreneurs when the government has yet to master the balancing of its own books. Last July, Kenya’s general auditor reported “disturbing problems” in the government’s accounting because just 1.2 percent of the government’s 2013–14 budget was properly documented. And corruption remains pervasive. Abzed Osman, 28, isn’t a university graduate like Ambogo, but he is also a beneficiary of a government program, the National Youth Service (NYS), in which he spent a year hauling stones to make toilets in Kibera, earning 300 Kenyan shillings (US $3) a day. He’s also been unemployed since finishing the program, which was undermined last year when 800 million shillings (nearly US $8 million) were stolen from its coffers.

Today, Abzed gives “slum tours” of Kibera — the last tour he did was in March — and that’s indicative of how much of the country’s economy works: informally. More than 80 percent of Kenyans are industrious hustlers, like Abzed, which leaves them open to unfair treatment and exploitation. “We need to make informal employment healthier as we start to trend toward formalization,” independent development economist Anzetse Were advises. 

Gettyimages 529562020

Kibera is the biggest slum in Africa and one of the largest in the world. It houses about one million people on the outskirts of Nairobi.

Source Nigel Pavitt/Getty Images

Kenya is holding presidential elections next August, promising further hope for change. But the shadow of the 2007 election, which saw hundreds brutally murdered in ethnic violence after the opposition disputed the outcome, still haunts the nation. Elections in 2013 were largely peaceful, but protests over next year’s vote have already begun — some people have been beaten and killed. Countless projects are trying to alleviate Kenya’s youth unemployment problem, but the government’s real chance for promoting prosperity depends on providing the structural changes needed to ensure more Kenyans, like Ambogo, who’s proficient in Photoshop and managing websites, can find gainful employment. “I haven’t got a job yet, but I’ll find one, I know,” she says.

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