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To develop, Kenya needs technology skills to use the billions from donors

By Mbatau wa Ngai | Published Sat, May 23rd 2015 at 00:00, Updated May 22nd 2015 at 23:33 GMT +3

The announcement last week that Kenya will receive Sh321 billion from the European Union to finance mega projects under Vision 2030, had a significance beyond the amount of money on offer.

The statement that the EU would work as a partner with Kenya to identify priority areas to support and jointly define the way in which the support will be rolled-out marks a significant departure from the days when development partners would be the ones who identified the programmes and projects to fund.

The additional funding gives the Government the confidence it needs to push ahead with the vision, whose success will see the country transformed from the ranks of low to middle-income countries over the next 15 years.

There is concern however that despite these developments, the country might be headed for turbulent political times. This is unless the Government deliberately takes steps to address the looming challenges facing the majority of the population.

One of the key challenges include labour productivity on farms, factories and offices. There is near unanimity that the country’s education system is exacerbating the problem especially at the university level. This is because only a small number of students end up studying for the courses they either have an interest in or are qualified for.

This was well captured in an article published in The Standard last Friday, written by  the founder and chairman of Mount Kenya University Simon Gicharu. Mr Gicharu’s narrative mirrors that of millions of Kenyans who have gone through the local public universities since the 1970s.

Exponential expansions

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What started as a trickle confined to the faculties of arts and education became a flood in later years, when the universities embarked on exponential expansions to meet the growing needs of the increased number of graduates from secondary schools.

The result is the continued graduation of students who cannot be absorbed into the labour market that is starved for qualified staff. The reality for those who manage to get jobs is that they have to take low-paying jobs at the bottom of the careers’ ladder. They also have to endure years of training and re-training before they can become truly productive and earn decent pay. Predictably, few employers have the patience to train staff, a number of whom they know will leave as soon as they are offered a better salary by one of the many companies that specialise in poaching employees, whom others have trained and mentored.

The widespread low workers’ productivity means that the country’s goods and services are finding it increasingly difficult to compete in the regional markets, following the opening of those markets to imports from Asia, Egypt and South Africa. Yet these are the markets in which Kenyan manufacturers were dominant only a few years ago. Needless to say, the local manufacturers have had a hard  time breaking into the global markets where the country still only exports raw materials.

KCSE results

The situation cannot and should not be allowed to go on much longer. Education Cabinet Secretary Prof Jacob Kaimenyi could set the ball rolling by taking up Mr Gicharu’s recommendation that secondary school students be allowed or required to pick their courses and universities after their KCSE results are out.

This would give them a chance to match their choices with their ability as demonstrated in the final results. The cabinet secretary could go further and direct the scrapping of courses that seem geared more to bringing in revenue than to benefiting the graduates.

This is true in both public and private universities. Treasury may also be persuaded to treat President Uhuru Kenyatta’s message delivered last December more seriously by allocating more money for the training of the right caliber of staff in tertiary institutions.

Opening the Africa Forum on Inclusive Economies in Nairobi, President Kenyatta called on African countries to focus on engineering skills to run drilling operations, legal skills to negotiate positions that protect present day assets into the future.

He further urged African States to up technology skills to run the digital networks that are needed to monitor operations, adding that skills development should focus on outstanding vocational skills to build and maintain these investments.                   

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