When Oliver Kigalu enrolled for his engineering degree seven years ago, he never thought he would end up working as a construction labourer. But that is how the 26-year-old now makes his living.
“When you leave college so many people are looking for jobs but it’s very hard to get a decent one,” he says, as he queues for work outside a half-built factory in Ruaraka in northern Nairobi. “I’m not using my qualification at all, but the important thing is to make money and get food.”
Mr Kigalu’s plight is becoming increasingly common in a country where formal education has been prized. The government estimates university enrolment more than doubled between 2012 and 2016 — to 540,000. But youth unemployment was 17.4 per cent in 2014, according to the latest data available from the World Bank — one of the highest rates in east Africa.
Siddharth Chatterjee, the resident UN co-ordinator in Kenya, says youth unemployment poses “an existential threat” to the region’s largest economy.
The agriculture sector, in which he says some three-quarters of Kenyans earn their living, exemplifies the crisis. “The median age of Kenyan farmers is 61, but the median age of the population is 18,” he says. “We need to make that sector tech-savvy and sexy for young people. It is part of the greater challenge of preventing young people leaving remote areas and moving to the cities.”
Uhuru Kenyatta, Kenya’s president, has publicly recognised the extent of the problem. In a speech delivered by his deputy at an education forum in Nairobi earlier this month, Mr Kenyatta admitted that “the market is saturated with degree-level graduates, at the expense of middle-level [workers with the] relevant skills and competencies”.
In 2013, the government relaunched the lapsed National Youth Service, first created in 1964 to provide education and voluntary work for young people. It has also established the Youth Enterprise Development Fund, a state corporation that provides financial and business support to youth-owned businesses. Last month, Mr Kenyatta said that almost 1m young Kenyans had used Ks11bn ($106m) from the fund to start and expand businesses.
Those working on youth employment, however, say these attempts barely scratch the surface. Rob Burnet, chief executive of Well Told Story, a Kenya-based organisation that uses media and research to boost livelihoods, especially those of the young, says the vast majority of Kenya’s youth don’t want anything to do with the authorities. “Government is at best a distraction and at worst a hindrance,” he says. “Most are young people just trying to hustle their way through life.”
The problem is worsening as Kenya’s youth bulge adds to the number of people entering the labour market. “Last week I heard someone say for the first time ‘I wish I’d never been to college’,” Mr Burnet says. “A growing view now is that college just leads to debt and hopelessness.”
Still, he insists, the situation is not all doom and gloom. “There are plenty of areas where many people are working without formal employment and so they’re not captured by the official statistics,” he says. “They’re surviving because they’re entrepreneurial.”
Kenya’s challenge is not just to help young people find jobs; employers also need assistance finding staff. Mehdi Sinaceur, the programme director for Generation Kenya, a scheme run by the non-profit organisation McKinsey Social Initiative, says Kenya’s youth has great ability and enthusiasm.
“What’s missing is the link between employers’ needs in the first few months of employment and what the young people know,” Mr Sinaceur says.
For the past two years, Generation Kenya has been running six- to eight week-long courses for anyone who has at least finished secondary school to help bridge this gap. Courses have included teaching technical skills for a specific sector, appropriate behaviour and professional mentoring.
In the first year 4,500 people attended the courses, of whom 90 per cent found work that Mr Sinaceur says provides a decent living. The goal is to help 50,000 people find work in five years.
Some 140 employers have joined the programme so far and Mr Sinaceur’s team is extending it so that non-governmental organisations and government departments can adapt the training to meet their particular needs.
“Once you provide everyone with the right tools, the potential of these young Kenyans is massive,” he says.
Mr Chatterjee, while praising such schemes — and Mr Kenyatta’s commitment to tackling youth unemployment — believes they do not go far enough.
“We need a Marshall Plan,” he says, referring to the US scheme that helped Europe rebuild after the second world war. “The government has to take responsibility in the way the Asian tigers did last century. We need to see how to make the informal sector integrated into the broader economy. If that can be done then the sky’s the limit.”