Ideas & Debate

Will youth be taken for a ride again in 2022?


Youths take part in a physical grill at Molo Stadium in Nakuru County during a Kenya Defense Forces recruitment exercise. PHOTO | JOHN NJOROGE | NMG


  • In 2013 the Jubilee Manifesto informed Kenyans that 70 percent of unemployed people in Kenya were youth.
  • Multiple interventions were proposed including institutes of technology in every ward and innovation centres to support the emerging generation of highly creative Kenyans.

The Narc Government released its Economic Recovery Strategy for Wealth and Employment Creation in 2003. It revealed that Kenyan youth accounted for 45 percent of the unemployed.

To address this shocking statistic, the strategy promised to create 500,000 jobs annually by focusing “on the small business enterprises”. Sounds familiar? Wait, there’s more!

Fast forward to 2013 and the Jubilee Manifesto informed Kenyans that 70 percent of unemployed people in Kenya were youth. The figure had worsened by a whopping 25 percent over ten years.

Multiple interventions were proposed including institutes of technology in every ward and innovation centres to support the emerging generation of highly creative Kenyans.

Jubilee promised to allocate 2.5 percent of national revenue towards a Youth Enterprise Capital Fund designed along the Constituency Development Fund model to provide interest-free financing.

Even more exciting was the idea of special Industrial Parks targeting small businesses that did not materialise.

Adding insult to injury, the state reports unemployment by only recognizing those who do not have any form of employment and have been searching in recent weeks, masking the millions of youth not actively looking.

Additionally, 80 percent of new jobs are in the informal sector so the actual number of people employed is subject to the interpretation given our penchant for massaging numbers.

Politicians are scrambling to capture the youth vote by promising heaven and earth. Such promises across the political divide include direct cash transfers, millions of new jobs, business funds, training and government jobs, including cabinet posts.

The youth response seems lukewarm at best. While youth participation in politics is a hot-button issue currently, there is a lingering distrust of politicians. This is largely based on broken promises. Our election cycles since 2002 have oscillated between grand promises and ethnic mobilisation.

Following every election, the youth see the same old faces being rewarded with most appointments, including those meant to address youth issues. Given that a 34-year-old graduate could have up to 13 years of work experience, this is a slap in the face.

Additionally, our youth bear the burden of political violence but receive none of its rewards. Once the election season handouts are gone, it's back to joblessness and the despondency that contributes to drug and alcohol addiction, gambling, violent crime, unplanned pregnancies and mental health issues.

However, all is not lost. As the Institute of Economic Affairs noted in a March 2020 report, the youth employment challenge is not for lack of policy initiatives that date back to independence. The disconnect is in formulating demand-based policy initiatives and subsequent evidence-based implementation.

For example, social media is widely used by young people to communicate and generate income. So-called influencers are known to generate incomes of up to Sh400,000 per post. Our reaction? A Digital Services Tax to go with the 20 percent excise tax on airtime and data, thereby stifling creativity and real incomes.

Lupita Nyong’o won an Academy Award in 2014 at the age of 31. So we know that Kenya’s got talent. Rather than nurture that talent, we have a government agency that bans Kenyan-made movies faster than you can say, Oscar! There goes another job creation incentive.

Today’s youth are perhaps the best informed in history. They are also natural-born skeptics. Why pay me a monthly stipend they ask when you cannot guarantee Universal Health Coverage for my family at a fraction of the stipend per month? Why is no one addressing climate change when the effects of droughts, floods and desertification are here for all to see?

In my thinking, the political formation that wins the youth vote will need to focus on three key things.

First, every promise has to be credible and anchored in reality. A party that commits to establishing a business fund or direct cash transfers must quantify the amount and demonstrate where it will come from in the budget. Detailed proposals must be open to public scrutiny.

Second, we need to stop paying lip service to young people’s participation in politics. Not everybody under 35 needs to run for office but every office must have a youth policy that takes concrete steps to involve them in decision making.

As a start, various government boards and agencies can mandate that a quarter of members be youth since we have always said they are tomorrow’s leaders.

Finally, let us remove barriers to youth participation in the economy by enshrining legislation that directs skills development and capital to the youth. That includes old economy pursuits such as agriculture and manufacturing as well as the digital economy. We must also focus on the social challenges including the silent mental health crisis that is stifling our youth.

The clearest example of disenchantment is the low new voter registration numbers. Politicians today sound like snake oil salesmen and the youth message is clear - whatever you’re selling, we ain’t buying!