Soaring youth unemployment has forced Kenya to reform its education system. Now, it’s focused on providing technical training. Will it work?
By Lizan Nijkrake
Kenya is overhauling its higher education system in an ambitious campaign to reduce youth unemployment in East Africa’s second biggest economy.
The goal is to give the nation’s rapidly expanding youth population the skills needed by companies that are keen to benefit from Kenya’s economic growth. The campaign marks a shift from the former British colony’s traditional educational system that emphasized theory over practical skills.
Since the government passed a 2013 law calling for closer coordination between academic institutions and industry, the number of young Kenyans enrolled in technical and vocational education institutions has more than doubled to more than 360,000, according to the Kenyan National Statistics Bureau.
“It’s a paradigm shift,” said Kevit Desai, a senior official in Kenya’s Ministry of Education in charge of Vocational and Technical Education (TVET).
“We want to enroll one million students as soon as possible. Throughout their lives, people need pathways to build competencies and skills,” Desai said in an interview in his Nairobi office in May.
Only one in 10 Kenyans make it to university.
Kenya’s campaign places the country at the forefront of Africa’s educational reforms.
“In many countries you’ll see projects in certain areas. Kenya’s changing the whole system,” said Fazle Rabbani, a senior education specialist at the Washington-based Global Partnership for Education.
Of all continents, Africa has the youngest population, and Kenya is no exception. In 2017, the median age in Kenya was 19 years old, according to the United Nations.
Kenya, East Africa’s second biggest economy behind Ethiopia, has by far the highest youth unemployment rate of the region. Official figures vary from 11% (Kenyan National Statistics Bureau) to 26% (International Labour Organization).
About one in five Kenyan youth are “underemployed,” meaning they have a job but actually don’t make much money. They have too little work to maintain themselves, or they do occasional gigs.
Only one in 10 Kenyans make it to university. “So we’d created a system where 90% are filtered out,” said Desai. For dropouts, there was no good alternative after high school.
Unheard of in Africa
Technical training can help close the stubborn skills gap. Kenya’s youth have historically been offered general, theoretical education, while the vast majority of jobs are in practical fields such as manufacturing, polytechnic, textile and hospitality.
To make the labour market more accessible for Kenya’s youth, the government pushed through the TVET Act 2013. The law calls for market-responsive curricula and a closer collaboration between colleges and industries. The government established a TVET authority to oversee quality and certification.
Since the law was enacted, the number of TVET institutions has increased from 755 to 2,289 last year, according to Kenyan official statistics. Training is more accessible, the government has cut in half the fees for TVET-training to US$550, and it has distributed both grants, or gifts, and loans.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) noted in a report last year that Kenya has successfully attracted support for its TVET reforms from the African Development Bank, the World Bank and official donors including China and Germany.
In June, as part of closer cooperation with China, Kenya announced it will recruit and deploy 2,000 more trainers at TVET institutions. “That’s unheard of in Africa,” said Ngari Morrison, a former TVET trainer and consultant in the sector.
Although the transformation is remarkable, the picture remains complicated. Three out of every four youths in Kenya still drop out after primary or secondary school, according to Dalberg, a strategic advisory firm with offices around the globe.
College fees remain prohibitively expensive for many and training too time-consuming. Most courses take three or four years, although opportunities for one- or six-month certificates are growing.
In its 2018 report, UNESCO noted five major challenges, including managing the work of various ministries, the private sector and religious organizations.
“The number of different providers has led to an uncoordinated system with a weak framework and different standards for certification and curricula development,” UNESCO said.
It can be difficult for TVET institutions to keep up with market demands and technology. Many colleges have obsolete equipment. “As students train with substandard equipment, their absorption in the labour market becomes more difficult and reinforces the mismatch between the supply and demand of skills,” UNESCO said.
Big Four Action Plan
In its 2018-2022 strategic plan, Kenya’s Ministry of Education proposed moves to tackle these challenges.
To address a lack of equipment, the ministry has conducted an equipment inventory. The government has decided to provide technical equipment to 690 institutions and to establish a national e-learning center for the online dissemination of up-to-date curricula.
The government plans to address the fact that more boys than girls are enrolled in technical training — for every four boys in TVETs there are three girls.
UNESCO said too many TVET institutions are concentrated in urban areas, which disadvantages marginalized youth in rural zones. Students with disabilities are generally excluded. Only four institutions cater to students with special needs, and even there, spots are limited.
The strategic plan calls for a survey to make technical training more inclusive and accessible. Without committing to numerical targets, the government has pledged to adapt TVET institutions to the needs of disabled students.
The biggest problem may be harder to solve: a negative perception of the program among many young people. “The working economy is heavily underappreciated,” said Aggrey Ndombi of the International Labour Organization in Kenya.
Many youth still end up working in the informal sector, which makes up 83% of Kenya’s labour market. They work in retail or become “jua kalis” — workers hired to do an assortment of small tasks.
So the government is encouraging youth to enroll in TVET and stack certificates to build a career. It is working on a development strategy called “the Big Four Action Plan” to spur activity in manufacturing, food security and nutrition, affordable housing and health coverage. The goal is to create 1.2 million jobs in manufacturing alone by 2022.
But with Kenya’s youth population expected to grow by five million in the next 10 years, will these bold policies provide enough jobs?
Lizan Nijkrake is a journalist and former diplomat who is based in Amsterdam. She is a fellow in global journalism at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto — and covers international affairs, human rights and migration, with a focus on Europe.