Locking youth out of policy making processes kills growth

Youths hired under Kazi kwa Vijana project participate in the construction of 1.7 Kilometers Grogan road in Nairobi which is being undertaken by the Nairobi Metropolitan services. [Collins Kweyu, Standard]

On the sidelines of a meeting of 13 youth lobby groups this past week, I had the privilege of sitting down with youth leaders to debate and discuss the upcoming elections, and the role of young people in it.

The wide-ranging conversation was fast-paced, heated and interesting.

As we started, the youth leaders felt that many political leaders are not inspiring young people nor encouraging them to take up opportunities in our society.

They also felt that they don’t have sufficient space at the table of politics and that it should be young people articulating the youth agenda.

Then we got talking. What were the 13 lobby groups focused on? Why is social media full of negativity? What is the most pressing issue for young people? And why is it that even with the massive change of guard at each election, the country does not seem to get it right?

Unemployment is the most pressing issue for young people, the youth leaders said. Which led us to a robust discussion on how to create meaningful jobs.

The youth leaders offered four ideas on what is to be done: more support for agriculture, increase focus on technical skills through Tivet, and give tax incentives and stagger loan repayments.

I have argued that in the tradition of Vision 2030, the Kibaki and Uhuru administrations have fixed most of the key enablers such as infrastructure, ICT and education, and this means that the most urgent business for our nation is to industrialise and thereby create millions of jobs.

I conceded that we may argue how well the enablers are fixed, or whether we financed them appropriately. But we all agreed that the fact is we have the enablers.

Industrialisation will leverage those enablers to put money into peoples’ pockets and create jobs. We also agreed that there are many other reasons to industrialise, with the most important being that no nation on earth has become wealthy without industrialisation, and more recently, high technology services.

I pointed out that now discredited, early economic orthodoxy had argued that nations should follow comparative advantage.

However, no amount of natural resources has ever triumphed over manufacturing. In fact, without the latter, exploitation of the former is all but impossible.

Drilling, conveying and processing oil, for example, requires heavy machinery. Many of the world’s leading industrial nations have no natural resources to speak off, and import materials and export manufactured goods.

Throughout independent Kenya, officialdom has always recognised agriculture as “the mainstay” of the economy.

But increases in agricultural productivity require manufacturing. First, because the latter is a key market for the agricultural output – from cotton to milk and gum arabica.

Processing agricultural output not only reduces post-harvest loss but gives the farmer a better price as opposed to periods of glut. Second, manufacturing is the source of the machinery and equipment necessary for the agricultural productivity increase to begin with. From tractors to irrigation systems, large scale and intensive agriculture is not possible without building manufacturing first.

As a nation, we have not lacked policy intentions to industrialise. We have stated our intentions in various sessional papers and in Vision 2030, the youth leaders countered. 

But policy statements without clear political processes to make the policy succeed are empty. Conversely political rhetoric without well thought out policy is blind, I offered.

Still, I had to concede, however, that most commercial policies seemed designed to ensure that we do not industrialise.

Standards, the youth leaders pointed out, are used by many nations as a way to protect their own industry to our detriment.

I readily agreed that many laws made after independence have continued in that tradition. The Export Processing Zones (EPZ) and the Special Economic Zones (SEZ) give tax preference to imported goods, to the detriment of Kenyan made, machinery and equipment.

As our debate raged, I pointed out that industrialisation requires deliberate policy action, particularly the protection and promotion of Kenyan industries.

These actions require not only clarity of purpose but courage to persuade business elites to support the industrialisation programme.

This is necessary because the high-cost structure of both credit and energy are the source of profits for existing powerful business interests, but they make the Kenyan industry uncompetitive.

I offered the example of my own county Laikipia, and the steps that my government is taking to support job creation. Our now nearly four billion shillings, the market-based economic stimulus package is supporting small businesses with working capital, asset finance, LPO financing and invoice discounting.

Further, beginning this financial year, we are providing rebates to bring down the cost of energy and distribution. I pointed out that all this is happening in the context of the Laikipia Innovation and Enterprise Development programme that has created about 19,000 jobs.

But youth are not accessing the information on this programme, the young leaders pressed! This led us to a light-hearted conversation on the use of social media.

I countered that young people also have a responsibility to assist in getting positive information out to their colleagues and the nation at large.

I also expressed my disappointment that although many towns and market centres in Laikipia are connected with high-speed fibre optic cable, the utilisation is very dismal.

Nearly exhausted, I made my pitch. The reforms necessary to make it possible to industrialise and thereby create millions of jobs require very broad legitimacy.

It is for this reason that the nation is better off approaching the coming General Election with a very broad-based nationalist coalition.

Nationalists because unemployment and low incomes are critical issues that pose an existential threat to the nation.

Coalition because it requires support from, and direct action by business, organised labour, teachers’ unions, the deep state, and most importantly the young people.

We support Azimio, the young leaders smiled back.

But not before extracting a commitment from me to support them with mentorship, technical support to assist the lobby groups to sharpen their policy positions, and support for youth candidates.

It will be a good year for our beloved nation!

Ndiritu Muriithi is the independently elected Governor of Laikipia County.