Tell-tale signs of potential threat of youth unemployment in Kenya

Mercy Tarus, a student who was to travel to Canada for Overseas study programme still at her salon at Chepkolel, Uasin Gishu County on August 8, 2023. [Christopher Kipsang, Standard]

Within the past two weeks, two seemingly unrelated events trended widely across the country. First, it was the Worldcoin craze when hundreds of youths lined up for eye scans in exchange of crypto points by an entity they knew nothing about. Second, was the brave young lady from Uasin Gishu County who gave a tongue-lashing to senior officials of the county in the glare of cameras.

For many, these events may appear to be part of the usual 'memes' that have a habit of showing up every so often in our otherwise normal lives. However, from a critical look of the socio-economic fabric of the nation, these are not random nor unrelated events. They do have a thread that connects them.

Within this space of time, the Speaker of the National Assembly Moses Wetang'ula found himself on the wrong side with Kenyans for advising youths to look for employment opportunities abroad. He was speaking at the Mt Kenya University where he was the chief guest for a graduation ceremony. It is easy for anyone to wonder what was peculiar about the speaker's comments. This is the second man in the line of succession should a vacancy suddenly arise in the office of the president under Article 146 of the Constitution. Further, within the government's official protocols, the Speaker of the National Assembly is not only the head of the Legislative arm of government, but also the third in the political pecking order.

Therefore, 'Papa wa Roma''s comments about the unemployment problem in the country cannot be subsumed to be pedestrian within the broader macroeconomic dialogue ongoing in the country. With hindsight, this unemployment problem is the thin thread that connects the Worldcoin madness and the Uasin Gishu incident of national shame.

Data fallacy

It is very easy to underestimate the realities and complexity of the unemployment problem from official data. As a rule of the thumb, any government that is struggling to demonstrate believable performance to its citizenry is likely to exaggerate official key economic indicators to create a perception of achievements among the publics. Understanding the political environment in which official data is generated is critical for seasoned analysts to understand and correctly interpret a phenomenon of interest.

For instance, experts have consistently questioned the official unemployment rate reported in the country. While we may argue that there are universal methods developed by economists for computing and estimating unemployment, the outputs may vary depending on how we frame the question at the data collection point or how a country defines work. I will share a practical experience here.

During the 2018 national census, the question asked for employment was: Did you work in the last 7 days? The answer was to be a yes or no. I was on my annual leave that particular period, so I had not reported to the office for over 10 working days. The enumerator declared me not to have worked and by extension unemployed as per the survey. When I sought clarification, she explained herself was a teacher and they were on holiday, so her case was also similar to mine as per the survey data capture.

The trouble with this type of data capture is that it fails to determine the nature and quality of work that we measure. This may explain the seemingly suspect official statistics on unemployment and thus effectively sweeping under the carpet a valid and grave problem that the government must address candidly and sustainably to avert a looming disaster ahead.

According to the World Bank data, the unemployment rate in Kenya has averaged at 8.98 per cent between 1991 to 2022. The trend is a steady decline from 3.3 per cent in 1991 to all time low of 2.8 percent in 2016, before a sharp increase to peak at 5.64 per cent in 2021. In 2022, the unemployment rate eased marginally to 5.5 per cent. This data was updated in April 2023. As per the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics data, the current overall unemployment rate is estimated at 12.7 per cent.

Contrast these official statistics with the report on the same indicator reported by the Federation of Kenya Employers (FKE). According to an article on their website, Africa has a population of almost 200 million people aged 15-24 years. This constitutes about 40 per cent of the continent's workforce, with 60 per cent of them been the unemployed active labour force. This number is estimated to double by 2045.

Further, the report indicates youth in Kenya (15-34 years) form about 35 per cent of the population, but account for 67 per cent of the unemployment rate. An estimated one million young people enter into the labour market annually. Other statistics show the share of youth aged 15-24 years who constitute the labour force, that is, without work but available for and seeking employment in the last four years are estimated at 12.43, 13.83, 13.48 and 13.35 per cents respectively for the period 2019-2022.

If there are doubts to how big this problem is: how many of us who do not know of a degree, diploma or certificate holder who is not employed. Even if they were working, what sort of jobs are they doing compared to their skills and training?

The FKE opines that this youth unemployment is the biggest challenge facing African economies because it portent's a serious threat to stability. Thus, addressing this problem will avert imminent uprising and assure requisite peace to attract investment and create wealth in these economies. For avoidance of doubt, anyone is free to cross-check on the decisive role young people played during the Arab Spring of December 2010 to December 2012, that swept many Arab governments and leaders away.

Betrayal

The despicable betrayal of the youths of Uasin Gishu by their leaders may look insignificant for now; but the courageous confrontation meted on them by these young people is a decisive signal of things to come. If any of those in power imagines this was an isolated case, then they better educate themselves on the history of revolutions. I may be wrong, but it is worthy noting that: one, the youths speaking here are from the home county of the sitting president; two, the leaders who supposedly defrauded these young people are close allies of the president; and three, these brave young souls acknowledge the potential threat to their lives for confronting the men of power, but go ahead to declare their willingness to die, if it becomes necessary.

This episode, in my view, has planted a seed among thousands of youths and senior patriots across the country that it is possible to stand against abuse and oppression by those in power and authority. Further, in many ways it has exposed the fallacy of 'Mtu wetu' syndrome popular with politicians to mobilise ethnic grassroot support and radicalise voters against opponents. I am certain the reflex question in the minds of thousands who have listened to the pain and anger of this young lady towards her leaders is: What does it profit the ordinary Kenyan by having their own in State House? If this question will count in days ahead, only time will tell!

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