By Leah Ngari
With the current population at 52.6 million and the median age at 19 years, Kenya will be among the African countries to have the largest workforce in the coming years. National and multinational companies can draw on Kenya’s educated labor pool to staff headquarters or local branches. But the biggest opportunities may come from Kenyan graduates themselves establishing businesses and fashioning their future.
I spent three years studying for my B.A. in Kenya, hoping that it would give me an advantage in Kenya’s competitive job market. Most mornings, I would wake up and make myself tea to have with some ‘mandazi’ before quickly rushing out to school. I lived in a tiny studio apartment, a good 20-minute walk from university, as did most of the students who did not get space at the school dorms.
The apartments were generally more costly than the dorms, but living at home with my parents would have been more expensive: Commuting is expensive. The heavy traffic also wouldn’t have helped much.
Classes lasted two hours each, with two-three classes a day, four days a week. On days when I stayed on campus into the afternoon, I could buy lunch for $1-2 (USD) at one of the small restaurants just outside of campus. I tried to cook most of my meals at home, since this was always more affordable.
My parents paid my student fees, which are currently fixed at approximately US $160 a year. The government subsidizes the remaining tuition (approximately US $673/year).
Like most other students, however, I still needed to work to pay for my rent and utilities. Since jobs are generally scarce, it is difficult to find a job that is flexible enough to accommodate a student’s schedule. As a result, many students establish small businesses, often in printing or selling clothes or food to other students and workers. Other students opt for jobs that can be done remotely. One either has to start a business or find remote, online jobs. I opted for freelance writing. My parents paid my tuition fees, and I worked for most of the extras.
Even though I applied myself to my studies, I lived in the constant fear that I will not get a job once I graduate. Employers have pointed out that most recent graduates lack the soft skills needed in the workforce today. This includes advanced cognitive and socio-behavioural skills that the World Bank has identified as a high-level requirement for employment.
Yet these skills are not generally taught in the Kenyan education system, so students who want to be attractive to employers need to acquire these skills on their own. I volunteered with several companies and interned for others to gain the skills and experience required for the job market. Some students opt to learn new languages or get certificates in short courses such as accounting to add to their resumes.
Those with a technology background have an easier time finding a job. Indeed, Kenya’s ICT sector has grown annually by an average of 10.8% since 2016. Interestingly, however, many companies in Kenya’s ICT sector report that their primary source of technology talent is “programming bootcamps” rather than universities.
Other students turn to entrepreneurship. There are 38 incubators and accelerators currently operating in Kenya, and the country has the highest percentage of female entrepreneurs in East Africa.
Although only 2.8% of the total population has a university degree, the lack of “white collar” jobs makes the job search very competitive. Popular industries such as hospitality and business management are flooded, with companies getting hundreds of applicants for a single position.
Kenya’s students are doing what they can to get noticed in the competitive job market. If more businesses establish operations in Kenya, they will find an educated labor force ready to propel their business forward.