Why do Kenyan youth demonstrate, and how can we get off the hook?

Demonstrations in Kenya. Whenever they arise, the youth are the most affected and the most involved, regardless of their political affiliations. PHOTO/Courtesy.
Demonstrations in Kenya. Whenever they arise, the youth are the most affected and the most involved, regardless of their political affiliations. PHOTO/Courtesy.
  • Unemployment and unaffordable cost of life are key triggers.
  • Academic and economic disruption due to technology and other factors is a major contributor.
  • Reviving industries and taming corruption is vital.

It does not matter which side of the political spectrum where one belongs to; there will always be youth involved. 

They are dissatisfied and hungry for change, jobs, and food. The youth are all above the O level of education, and some have College diplomas and degrees. 

The level of unemployment is real and affects each youth adversely. How did we get here?

The government is a major employer, but with the introduction of structural adjustments, it was recommended that the government keeps its wage bill low by employing fewer people. 

So the people who used to get jobs as teachers, office workers, doctors, cleaners, security guards, and messengers were no longer getting such jobs. 

Job security was removed. Jobs were outsourced and the benefits were accrued by the hiring body rather than workers. 

As a new employee at the Institute for Development Studies, the University of Nairobi, in the early 1990s, we had a storekeeper, a record keeper, data entry clerks, interview clerks, typists, cleaners, and a messenger. 

By the time I left, all these jobs had been abolished due to technological changes and the need for the institute to keep wages low. 

Recent graduates could have taken up these jobs, but the positions had been frozen. The ripple effect was that more and more youths were becoming unemployed year in and year out.

De-industrialization and its sting

With globalization and liberalization, industries closed down. 

In Thika town, where I did my research for my master’s thesis, there were close to 30 industries in operation in 1986, but by 1990 these industries had closed down because they could not compete with imports. 

Famous industries that closed down included Metal Box, Yuken Textiles, and Kenya Fruit Processors. 

Other factories that closed down were AVM, and Leyland, to mention a few. 

The same process of closing down industries was replicated in Nairobi, Kisumu, Mombasa, Nakuru, Eldoret, and Nanyuki. 

We regret the closing down of Raymonds, which used to export blankets and suits. Some of the closing industries moved their production to Egypt and other Asian Countries. 

The closure of these industries meant that jobs were lost and the graduating youth could not get employment.

The expanding informal sector, where furniture, clothing, and household goods were made, was also brought to its knees.

Further disruption

Places like Githurai which had evolved around an evolving informal economy also lost jobs.

The thriving furniture industry, which was situated by the roadside, was displaced by the upgrading of the roads. 

The upgrading of Ngong Road also displaced the Dagoretti furniture cluster on Ngong Road.

Many kiosks, which were also situated in the upper-income neighborhood, were also brought down as security operations were expanded yonder. 

Cobblers in markets such as Kariokor were replaced by cheap shoe imports. 

Second-hand shoes and clothes displaced tailors in Kariobangi, Uhuru Markets, and Gikomba. 

The displacement of the informal sector meant that jobs were lost and graduating youth could not find jobs in the informal sector.

The matatu industry used to employ and absorb the youth. 

Reforms in the matatu industry and requirements for the formalization of jobs in the same reduced the ease of entry as a hangout for youth. 

Before operating in the matatu industry, one is required to be a member of a SACCO and pay a fee. The industry also became very competitive. 

Instead of having about three people work on a matatu, some only operate with a driver. This further reduced jobs in the matatu industry. 

It also had a bearing on other industries that supported the matatu industry, like the vehicle repair industry, the food industry, and the spare parts industry.

Agriculture, which was a net employer, was not spared. The collapse of global commodity markets of coffee, tea, and tobacco affected local production.

Corruption and ripple effects

Corruption cases such as Goldenberg and Anglo-Leasing sent the Kenyan economy into the doldrums. 

They resulted in high inflation, exorbitant exchange rates, and job losses.

They affected the way the Kenyan economy operates. Goods became very expensive and made it difficult to trade. 

Corruption and nepotism also affected who got jobs, replacing meritocracy. 

Only those who were well-connected or had relatives in government got jobs. This shut out a large majority of people from government jobs.

Education, not spared

The shift in government policy on education also affected the employment of young people. 

The deterioration of village polytechnics and the making of polytechnics into universities affected the places where young people went for job training. 

They had no option but to register in private colleges, which were very expensive yet without adequate infrastructure. 

The youth were left vulnerable with limited options and opportunities.

They were forced to pursue education in universities that also did not have adequate infrastructure. 

The education reform was not well thought out. It was hurried and led to the introduction of courses, some of which were not in line with market demand. 

Unemployment status in Kenya, according to Kenya Job Market Report 2017. Years on, things are worsening. INFOGRAPHIC/Brighter Monday.

Students who did these courses found themselves jobless or taking time to find jobs. 

The spill effects of these are many jobless youths who are angry and hungry.

How do we break these shackles?

  • One of the ways is to seek the path of alternative economies

We need to accept that our current economic development model is failing us. 

We need to start organizing our youth into cooperatives as a basis of solidarity economies. 

Economies are not based on seeking profit but on dealing with the welfare of the people. 

That is creating employment opportunities for many young people. Such cooperatives I have in mind are like the Kenya Peasant League, which young people organize to lobby, learn, and farm. 

They give each other support in farming and lobby in bodies such as the World Trade Organization (WTO) for better terms of trade. 

They have given visibility to peasant farming in different parts of Kenya. Another form of cooperative I have in mind is the Githunguri Dairy Farming Cooperative. 

In this case, farmers have organized themselves in milk production and have begun manufacturing and processing dairy products under Fresha Brands. 

These two cases demonstrate that there are possibilities in cooperative economies. Jobs can be created in this arena.

  • The second approach is to restore skills and training in polytechnics

There is a need to link jua kali training with polytechnic education. This will go a long way in upgrading skills in jua kali and improving the quality of goods. 

This could, in turn, serve as a basis for industrialization and job creation. It would absorb many youths and take them away from despair and hopelessness.

  • The third pathway is addressing the issue of corruption

Serious measures need to be taken to deal with corruption. All cases of corruption should be prosecuted, and those responsible given harsh punishment. 

This will make others learn from them.

  • The fourth technique is lobbying for better terms of trade

Sometimes, I wonder how many avocadoes or kilos of coffee a family should sell to buy a laptop retailing at $500 so that the youth in that family can participate in the digital revolution. 

We need to rethink our participation in international trade. 

For how long are we going to trade in raw materials? It is high time we started processing our products before exports.

  • The fifth move is to think seriously about the domestic processing of goods

We need to think about the local processing of generic drugs for domestic use and export. 

We need to think about how we can revive industries like Dawa Pharmaceuticals, which used to manufacture drugs. 

The revival of the clothing and textile industries needs to be considered. 

How do we restore and revive textile industries like Yuken, Kicomi in Kisumu, Rivatex in Eldoret, and Mountex in Nanyuki? 

The processing and manufacturing taking place in the Uhuru market and Kariobangi needs to be mainstreamed. 

We need to think about manufacturing locally most of the goods we import. 

COVID-19 interruption of supply chains demonstrated the dangers of solely relying on imports. 

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If we started manufacturing locally, we could contribute to GDP and create jobs for the unemployed youth who are angry and hungry.

The writer, Dr. Mary Njeri Kinyanjui, is an Independent Scholar at Beyond Knowledge Horizon. Her contact: marykinyanjui@yahoo.com.

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