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The Challenge of an Entrepreneurial Narrative to Youth Unemployment in Kenya

Friday 27 May, 2016

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

Kenyan Farmers

A recent World Bank report indicates that Kenyan educated youth are unlikely to find formal jobs. This is the case worldwide; but it is more critical in Africa where the demography will remain young for the next four decades. Nine million Kenyan youth will join the labour market in the next decade, and even though job creation has relatively increased in the last decade, it has not kept pace with the high numbers of youth entering the job market. Moreover, the recent surge in GDP in Africa has also been fuelled by a disproportionate expansion of the service sector, with limited synergy and growth in the industrial and agricultural sectors. Consequentially, educated youth are increasingly employed in temporary jobs or carve out new occupations in the informal sector.

An assumption that graduates might alter their career trajectories towards entrepreneurship rather than formal jobs prevails. Across the continent, there has been a surge of public and private investment in promoting youth enterprises in a wide range of sectors, including agriculture. The overriding goal of these investments is to address unemployment and promote and self-employment and job-creation among youth.

However, the numbers of young people transitioning into entrepreneurship is not significant. The 2015 East African Youth Survey indicates that even though most young people were willing to do anything to earn a living, their perceptions of agricultural occupations remained largely negative with only about 11% of Kenyan youth willing to take up agricultural occupations and about 63% anticipating public sector jobs. Not only does this tell us that there are many youth yet to change their aspirations and expectations in line with the socio-economic changes, it also highlights the narrow range of opportunity spaces for decent work outside the public sector.

My doctoral research found that young people are willing to diversify their livelihood options during times of economic uncertainty by pursuing portfolio occupations[1]. These opportunities are often in the informal sector and mostly do not address the productive and transformative needs of work or even result in significant economic growth. Furthermore, they are reliant on an enabling business environment that meets the needs of the heterogeneous youth cohort, a factor that has not been considered in most youth empowerment programmes. Fundamentally, the emphasis to entice young people into agriculture has resulted in the creation of temporary work opportunities in the sector without addressing the systemic challenges of the agrifood sector. As such, many youth engaging in agriculture do so while waiting for opportunities to transition to other livelihood sources.

On the other hand, whereas agriculture provides a great avenue for youth entrepreneurship, it is a capital-driven strategy for alternative livelihoods. Only those young people with access to a range of capitals (such as skills, start-up capital, land, market access etc.), enabling their basic survival, engage in agriculture as a business. Many others find themselves in agriculture as a last resort strategy, as a side-hustle, and during tarmacking. For these reasons, agricultural occupations are yet to become the envisaged productive and transformative work opportunities for young people. Nevertheless, these informal and temporary opportunity spaces do become part of their portfolio occupations allowing young people to get by and earn certain social markers of adulthood.

Least we assume that entrepreneurship is the ultimate solution to youth unemployment problems, we have to remain cognizant of the significant role of state in creating structures that facilitate an enabling environment for job-creation and for youth agribusinesses to thrive. There is need for a paradigm shift, so that, even as the state shrinks, there are policies and institutions enabling a rethinking in how we mainstream the youth demography into national development policies.

Grace graduated with a DPhil in Geography & the Environment from the University of Oxford. You can tweet Grace @gracemwaura or follow her personal blog:

Photo: Young farmers in Western Kenya farming tomatoes. Copyright: Grace Mwaura

[1] Mwaura, G.M. 2015. Educated Youth in Kenya: Negotiating Waithood by Greening Youth Livelihoods. PhD Thesis. Oxford University 

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