You can witness the same scene at dawn every morning in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi: thousands of young people in search of work are streaming out from the city’s slums towards its industrial areas.
Most of them are neatly if simply dressed, many of them are full of optimism, but the vast majority are destined to be disappointed. Those that can afford it will try and cram onto a bus in an attempt to beat the crowds, the rest will weave their way on foot through the heavy morning commuter traffic. But when they arrive, the situation for all of them will invariably be the same as it was on the previous day and the day before that and on all the other preceding days.
They will spend an hour or so packed in their hundreds along the pavements and parking lots outside a factory, warehouse or office block, certificates of education and references from previous employers ready to hand, waiting patiently for something to happen.
The usual rumours pass from person to person, this company is said to need people with computer skills, that one needs fork lift truck drivers or perhaps some just some day laborers. But then a supervisor will step from the building and shout out that he can offer a day’s work for four people with experience of working a lathe or two with secretarial skills.
Many step forward, a lucky few are selected at random and make their way inside, then the doors of the building close and the rest drift off to take up station at the next place or to make their long way back home – hopes dashed yet again.
A national disaster in the making?
George, a Kenyan in his early twenties, has graduated from university in December 2012 with a diploma in electrical engineering but so far he has been unable to find work.
“The chance I’m going to be chosen today is limited,” he says. “I’m just gambling. You can stand here for as long as half a day, because you never know the time that you can be picked.”
It is a story that is all too common. Joblessness among all people of working age is a serious problem in Kenya, but among young people, it is a catastrophe. The country has one of the largest youth populations in Africa, but roughly 70 percent of its working age youth – almost 10 million people – are unemployed, although a surprising number are very well educated and possess the kinds of skills a healthy economy really should be able to put to use.
In a country where almost 80 percent of the population is under the age of 35 some have labelled it a national disaster in the making, that may have serious social consequences and lead to civil unrest.
For a country that is still recovering from the scars of the widespread community violence that followed the 2007 election and which is still reeling from the aftermath of the al-Shabab Westgate mall terrorist attack in September 2013, it is a hint worth taking seriously.
Dr Alex Ezeh of the African Population and Health Research Centre in Nairobi put the significance of this youth population ‘bulge’ in context.
“It is a demographic event,” he says. “It’s something that many countries go through at different stages as they move from very high fertility and mortality to very low mortality, it creates this reservoir of people.” But this, as he explained, can have positive and negative consequences.
“Generally, what makes it a good thing is our ability to harness the economic potential of such a large proportion of young people going into the labour market … There is a side of it, the more negative part of it, which is, if there are no jobs and no opportunities to engage, then you have a lot of young people understanding what is going on but they’re disenfranchised politically, economically, and in many other ways, and this creates a lot of political instability.”
The stark reality for the young people from the huge slums at Kibera and Mathare and elsewhere around Kenya’s capital is that life without a job is extremely difficult. With no regular income many of them have to turn to crime to make a living. And even if they do not, they are often suspected of involvement in crime, which in turn leads to deadly entanglements with Kenya’s notoriously trigger-happy police.
A generation pushed to the edge
When asked who should be doing what about Kenya’s youth unemployment, the answer is clear. Successive governments in Kenya have done little to alleviate the plight of the jobless and should be doing more.
“Bring us facilities,” one young man says. “Bring us the resources. Bring us tools to work on. Bring us hope. Give us something that we can believe in. Start as a foundation. We can create our own things if we only have a foundation to start on. Surely the government can do that.”
Although the government has not been able to create the huge number of jobs necessary, it has tried to help young people help themselves. The Youth Enterprise Development Fund is one of the key programmes of this approach, and is giving interest-free loans to youths for business start-ups.
The fund can only be accessed by groups of nine or more people. Simon, one of the fund’s district officers, says that they have made loans to 130 groups in his district, with a 70-80 percent success rate. But he knows it is just a drop in the ocean. “I would say to some extent there has been a kind of ignorance in the perception with the youth that anything that comes from the government, it is very hard to get, but then they have not taken that initiative to try.”
Many Kenyans are deeply suspicious of any project run by the authorities, which are widely believed to be infected with the veins of corruption that run through every level of Kenya’s civic life. Transparency International has placed Kenya as the fourth most corrupt country in the world, and many young Kenyans say it affects them every day, even when trying to find a job, and again that politicians are to blame.
Raphael Obonyo is from Nairobi and is an advisor to the United Nations on youth affairs. He believes successive Kenyan governments have failed the country’s youth.
“I don’t think the youth have been supported by successive governments in Kenya. Youth have actually been marginalised, neglected, they’ve been put on the periphery. During campaigns you see a lot of politicians coming out to say ‘we want votes from young people, we value young people, we are going to take into consideration their concerns, we are going to deal with youth unemployment,’ but once they get into power nothing happens. In fact I actually think the government and politicians are actually antagonising young people more, they’re pushing them to positions of desperation.”