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January 21, 2019

Vocational Training The Missing Middle?

Like the rest of rest of Kenya, I kept twiddling my thumbs whilst waiting to hear about the cabinet appointments. By twiddling my thumbs, I mean working away quietly because not doing so will not feed the doglet and keep a roof over our heads.

And by ‘rest of Kenya’, I mean all those working people, not those freshly elected representatives of the people who have mostly been throwing toys out of prams over flags and whinging and whining over their new salaries.

I was particularly stunned by the argument that there would hardly be any cash left for them to live on once the deductions for car and house loans had been made.

There’s a fairly simple so- lution to this, wazee: do not take a car and house loan – surely you live somewhere already, and get around somehow?

Or, clutch pearls, find a car and house loan small enough to have money for bills left? Just saying. Right, onwards. New govern- ment – and with the cabinet appointments now out, it has finally taken shape.

New president Uhuru Kenyatta’s inauguration speech ticked a lot of the expected boxes, and then there were the first-100-days free- bies: free laptops, free maternal health treatments, and the funds earmarked for the run off to be allocated to women and youth funds. The laptops have been discussed back and forth. Free maternal health treatments would, of course, be ideal. I wonder how this will affect hospital finances, and if we end up with something

Similar to free primary education: lousy quality, and instead of school fees, there are ‘desk fees’, ‘motivation fees’, and all sorts of other fees. And then the women/youth fund. Here’s the thing: promising money always sounds great. Great PR.

Women and youth will not object to being given money, obviously. But I really doubt that this will have any significant impact. Such state-run funds, especially in an environment with high corruption levels, are notorious for waste and inefficiency. If passed through banks for onlending, then – as we’ve seen with similar previous exercises – the funds will not really move because banks often have tighter conditions and higher interest rates to cover their costs.

The women/youth fund is superficial fiddling with symptoms, not addressing any of the underlying reasons. Many of those in so-called ‘marginalised’ groups do not necessarily have a good business idea.

They might be willing to work hard, sure, but that does not automatically translate into a business idea. Of course everything that makes business difficult in general will also make business difficult for small entrepreneurs and companies: crumbling or missing roads, endless power cuts (or worse, no access to the grid), massive insecurity, predatory police and city council askaris.

But I think the question of skills has been given way too little attention in this context. This came up recently in a discussion on the ICT mailing list I subscribe to.

One participant suggested that ‘Germany is the only country in Europe that has not so far experienced economic meltdown. There trick is that two thirds of Germany University students work as ap- prentices which are arranged by the government.

In other words, their education policy is that you acquire skills first then sharpen them with degrees later.’ That is not entirely true. Rela- tively few university students do apprenticeships.

And apprenticeships are certainly not arrange- ment by the government. But what Germany does have is a fairly well developed vocational training system that is a combination of on-the-job training (this is where the private sector plays a key role) and parallel classroom training.

You can train in anything from banking to carpentry to mechanics to hairdressing. The system of trades and crafts have a long history, back to the middle ages (And Germans like to regulate things, so the whole system is very formalised).

But I think vocational training is something that the new government should urgently look at, and not just fleetingly, but in depth. Better skills will allow more value creation through all sectors, help build stronger companies, and create more and better-paid employment. This is also worth bearing in mind: The German university system has actually often been accused of producing students that are academically overquali- fied and of not much use in practical issues. In the anglophone system, in contrast, you can pick up the academic basics in your undergraduate years and then gain practical experience - unless you do want an academic focus, in which case you continue studying.

The takeaway for Kenya would be not to keep proliferating universities, but to focus more on creating a parallel system of vocational training and maybe polytechnics with a far more practical focus. That way, you could also harness the energy and skills in the jua kali sector. But I suspect that good vocational training is really the missing middle.


The writer is an independent country risk analyst.

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