The latest research into the aspirations and frustrations of Kenya’s booming young demographic reveals challenges that many African countries face if they are to maximise the potential of their young people.
Kenya is the biggest and most advanced economy in east and central Africa. Already with a population of 48 million people , like a lot of developing countries Kenya is experiencing a significant youth bulge, with more than 1 in 5 Kenyans aged between 15 and 24 years old. The British Council’s recent research, in partnership with DIFD, into Kenya’s ‘Next Generation Youth Voices’, uses a survey of 4,000 young Kenyans as well as in depth interviews to explore the main challenges facing the emerging youth population. It presents recommendations on how to address these issues and capitalise on the opportunity that such a young population provides.
Overview of Kenya’s Youth: Hopes and Fears
Kenya is on the cusp of one of the largest demographic shifts in history, with the working age population (16 – 65) estimated to grow to 73% by the year 2050. This is part of a wider trend. Within three generations, 41% of the world’s young people will be African. A significant percentage of those will be in Kenya. This youth bulge is being caused by an increase in life expectancy, along with reduced fertility rates. Combined with social and economic growth this could yield a demographic dividend to the country. Yet successfully capitalising on this potential demographic dividend will be dependent on bridging the gap between the opportunities presented by the growing numbers of - increasingly globalised, ambitious, and dissatisfied – young people and the employment challenges they face.
41% of the world’s young people will be African
91% of the respondents to the Next Generation research said they loved their country and agreed that Kenya had made progress in recent decades. Indeed, the research found that most young people see their nationality as their strongest source of identity. This is a positive foundation, in a country dogged by ethnic divisions, on which to build and harness national pride, personal ambition, and professional skills to benefit the economic future of the nation. Despite this, however, 38% would be willing to move abroad for work, preferably to the US. This is partially due to pull factors presented via increased global connectivity through social media and the internet. Meanwhile, crime, corruption, violence and unemployment are push factors that are spurring some young peoples’ desire to relocate abroad. The research suggest that these factors are a key cause for concern, with the majority believing that they will get worse in the future, negatively impacting Kenyan young people.
The problems start with the education system. School attendance and perceptions of the education system have improved over the past couple years. While there is a general feeling that Kenya’s education system can’t match western standards, most young people believe the standard of education is better than that received by their parents’ generation and is improving. This is despite lingering concerns about corruption related to education funds and safety worries in schools.
Yet a fundamental part of the challenge seems to be the disconnect between the education system and the skills required for employment, with 62% of the young people surveyed saying the education they received did not match the skills required for their jobs. Upskilling the current population should be a central policy priority. If the education system is not preparing the upcoming generations to succeed in the workplace, this chance to empower the eager young generation to transform Kenya into a leading nation could instead turn into a failed opportunity that will be a drain on the country’s resources and could lead to potential crisis.
The research suggests that, while there are technical and vocational institutions that could bridge the gap between education and employment, attendance is low at these compared to universities, possibly due to negative perceptions (the researchers found that many people believe ‘that polytechnic schools are for failures’) and the fact that the courses offered at these institutions don’t always meet the global standards that are required to meet the needs of employers.
Unemployment is the biggest challenge facing young Kenyans today, and is proportionally far higher than for the population as a whole. 67% of the young people surveyed identified it as their biggest personal concern, with 64% saying their employment expectations have not been met and that they are pessimistic about their future careers.
Youth unemployment in Kenya is higher than the sub-Saharan average and has increased since 2000. Despite the fact that the country’s economy is growing faster than the continent’s average, employment rates are going the other way, resulting in a pessimism amongst young people about their future prospects. Many believe that the system is stacked against them in favour of the older generation, with unemployment rates – approaching 30% - three times higher for them than for adults. It’s not that there aren’t jobs - rather that they are hard for young people to access. This pessimism contributes to the belief that only by moving abroad can they achieve their career ambitions. A dramatic change in employment trends is needed to reinstall confidence and ambition in the emerging generation and thereby keep them contributing to the economy. However, the current reality is that for some people, corruption - through nepotism and bribery (respectively identified as workplace challenges by 11% and 16% of those surveyed) - can seem to be the only way to bridge the intergenerational employment gap.
Not one person questioned in the qualitative research felt they had a voice in their society - not through lack of interest, but through a pessimism about their chances of being taken seriously by the older generation
The lack of youth empowerment and engagement extends into society and politics as well. Not one person questioned in the qualitative research felt they had a voice in their society - not through lack of interest, but through a pessimism about their chances of being taken seriously by the older generation.
Meanwhile, women face even greater obstacles achieving their ambitions. The research suggests that, while 80% believe in gender equality, in reality they face violence, discrimination and domestic barriers that limit their opportunities. This in turn results in an ever increasing gender gap, where women are more likely to be unemployed and uneducated.
While the government already have a number of youth empowerment schemes aimed at improving engagement in politics and society, such as a national youth service and ‘Youthfund’, these have been affected by corruption scandals, and many of the young people asked had never heard of these organisations.
Investing in and empowering the next generation provides the UK with an opportunity to become a constructive partner for Kenya in the future. Where previously Britain used to be Kenya’s largest source of FDI, China now leads the way. This is mirrored elsewhere: China is now the largest investor and trading partner with Sub-Saharan Africa. However, through teaching development skills and providing initiatives empowering young people to influence policy, the UK can actively work to assist the emerging nation, for mutual benefit.
Understanding the potential the next generation can bring to the future of Kenyan society and the economy could make all the difference in it becoming a prosperous nation through harnessing a demographic dividend. In order to do this, the greatest impact can be made by investing in levelling the employment playing field and improving access to skills. Implementing policies on empowering the emerging generation, preventing gender discrimination in employment, and promoting government-funded youth empowerment initiatives, could be the key to Kenya taking a positive economic step by tapping into its most valuable resource - the next generation.
Jessica Jackson, British Council Partnerships and Innovation
Next Generation is a series of global British Council research focusing on the attitudes and aspirations of young people, and the policies and conditions that support them in becoming creative, fulfilled and active citizens. Commissioned in countries facing times of significant change – social, political or economic – it examines how these events affect young people’s views on themselves, their societies and their relationship with the wider world. Through this, we aim to ensure young people worldwide have their voices heard so as to have influence on the decisions that affect their lives.