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Leveraging STI to Transform Informal Sector Youth Opportunities

Thursday 07 July, 2016

by Grace Mwaura (Kenya & St Hilda's 2011)

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A Science, Technology, and Innovation (STI) framework is important in a country where most young people rely on the informal sector for their livelihoods but which are threatened by the economic uncertainties, poor policies, and lack of incentives. Over 70% of Kenyan youth work in the informal sector, a majority in poor working conditions and underpaid. A shift in this sector resulting in improved employability, improved working conditions, creating new jobs and changing existing ones, while transforming the informal sector for future generations is then a priority. How can advances in STI transform youth livelihood opportunities in the informal sector while reinforcing the framework for implementing sustainable development goals (SDGs)? Some of the factors to consider include measuring the impact of STI on the informal sector, scaling up STI best practices, incentives, and capacity building.

It makes economic sense to link STI to the needs of the informal sector and to the achievement of SDGs. Through its national development blue print, Vision 2030, and its new constitution, Kenya is indeed one of the progressive countries in aligning its national development agenda with the SDGs. Articles 41 to 43 outline the labour, environment, social, and economic rights of Kenyan citizens, which are central to Agenda 2030 targets and integrate the principles of sustainability namely, environmental integrity, economic development and social justice and equity. The current economic statistics clearly show that there is little distinction between informality and formality, and in fact, Kenya’s economic growth thrives from informality. It is the smallholder agriculture employing millions of rural dwellers, the informal trade in local markets, the retail kiosks selling cheaply manufactured goods, the bodabodas[1], waste recycling, and the bourgeoning service sector work in small and big towns such as salons, barber shops, and mobile money kiosks etc. that fuel the economy. These, according to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics, account for over 60% of wage employment. Technological advancements and innovation must address such every day and localized hustles to improve micro-economies and hence, address social injustices of those living at the bottom of the pyramid.

Examples of how the informal sector benefits from STI already exist: mobile-based agricultural extension tools, solar-powered irrigation systems, mobile money services, improved seeds for dryland regions, online marketing platforms, local cottage industries, and increased number of technical and vocational training institutes among many others. However, their scale remains inadequate to meet the demands of the millions of youth in need of basic means of survival. Furthermore, these solutions need to move beyond protecting and preventing individuals from immediate calamities, and address long-term improvement of their well-being. This calls for enhancing their long-term resilience to respond to ongoing changes in the economy, society, and environment. Additionally, there is a gap in how we measure their impacts and design and implement replication and scaling strategies. National policies are needed to elaborate the informal sector development pathway, facilitate technology transfer, intellectual property rights, and provide incentives.

Capacity building grounds the capabilities and confidence of young people to pursue opportunities offered by STI in the informal sector. Even though this generation of young people is more educated than past generations, there are disparities in skills required by the labour market and those possessed by the young people. Efforts to address these push-pull factors have been addressed by, among others, increasing technical and vocational education and training institutions (TIVETI), promoting new forms of skills learning; and introducing entrepreneurship training in formal and non-formal education. The mushrooming of start-ups and incubators in Kenya is an indicator of increasing opportunities for capacity building and youth-led job-creation. These platforms offer training, mentoring, networking, and financing opportunities for young entrepreneurs. However, these efforts must be commensurate to the changes in the market to expand the opportunity space for the absorption of young people and in national policies to create an enabling environment for youth businesses to thrive.

Importantly, we must address the significantly low investments in research and development that limit the extent to which STI research is adopted to advance informal sector and improve livelihoods, hence constraining youth opportunities. Kenya invests less than 3% of its GDP in research and there are very few incentives and/or political will to implement policies that facilitate an STI-based economy. This blurs the vision of a sustainable economy and just future for the country and its young citizens.

Grace Mwaura (Kenya & St. Hilda’s 2011) is currently a Programme Associate with Climate Interactive and a non-residential Research Fellow with African Centre for Technology Studies (ACTS). She completed a DPhil in Geography and the Environment at Oxford on the subject of greening youth livelihoods in contemporary Africa. 

[1] Motorcycle transport

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