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February 17, 2019

Kenya’s GDP growth is laudable but where are the jobs?


I was tagged in a tweet, which also had the hashtag (#) 14th MKU (Mount Kenya University) Graduation. The tweet read “Congratulations on your graduation! Welcome to unemployment, overtaxation and minimal services”.

I thought that was a really odd, and mean message to send to graduating students. One might argue that the tweet was honest; saying it as it is. But I think it was a real damper on such a truly auspicious occasion. In the tweet was a link to a story published in the Daily Nation on July 11, 2017.

It was the story of young security guards braving the morning chill, walking along Lang’ata Road to their duty stations. Among these baton-wielding men was Boniface Kirui, who was 26 years then. He grew up in Bomet county.

He is the firstborn in his family. His father served in the Kenya Defence Force. As a child he had everything he needed; books, food, decent shelter, clothes and medical care.

In December 2016 Kirui quit his teaching job. He left his village and travelled to Nairobi in search of a job that could pay him a decent salary. According to Kirui, the Parents Teachers Association at Chelemei Girls’ Secondary School could not raise his salary.

At the time the story was written, Kirui was a security guard at a residential estate in Makadara. He earned a monthly salary of Sh7,000 and shared a house where they paid a monthly rent of Sh2,500. After paying his rent, there was hardly any money left to support himself, his parents and siblings in Bomet.

Kirui graduated from Moi University in 2015. He holds a degree in finance and banking and has completed CPA part one. According to Kirui, his parents felt they wasted resources educating him. He also felt his degree certificate had not helped him. But Kirui’s mother still believed that his time would surely come.

Although it was mean, the point of the tweet is dreadfully profound. For a majority of young Kenyans graduating from colleges and universities, dignified work is truly hard to find.

According to the 2018 Economic Survey report, only 16 per cent of the 897,000 jobs created in 2017 were in the formal sector of the economy. Growth in private sector employment declined from seven per cent in 2013 to 2.7 per cent in 2017. Moreover, growth in self-employment declined from 23 per cent in 2014 to just 5.2 per cent in 2017.

The cynicism and despair among parents and fresh graduates is palpable. The story of Kirui and many like him is heart rending. They are a powerful indictment of those in policy and decision making, who refuse to grapple with the structural problems that bedevil our economic growth.

Why is what is lauded as impressive GDP growth not yielding decent formal sector jobs for Kirui and millions like him? Are our universities doing enough to prepare graduates for work? Is the Big Four agenda the answer?


Alex O. Awiti is the director of the East Africa Institute at Aga Khan University  

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