Beryl Onyango*, 27, is a lawyer working for one of the law firms in Nairobi. She was always a special student, since the first time she stepped into a class. She could understand concepts pretty easily and her teachers were always awed. She scored a straight A in her KCSE exams and went for her passion, Law, despite attempts by parents, friends and relatives to choose a straight – A-suited career like Medicine, Actuarial Science or Mechatronics.
It was a passion for her.
From an early age, she understood that a legal career is a game of justice, and she bemoaned how poor people in Kenya never get access to high-quality representation. She doesn’t believe that there should be any short-cut for justice, and her belief is that the responsibility of killing corruption in Kenya rests on the institutions of justice.
Later this July (2020), she will be admitted to the bar and that gives her hope. But the last three years have been hard as she was surprised when she was slapped with a Kes 30,000 monthly contract as a legal assistant.
Some of her classmates from the national high school she attended are in the US, Canada, UK and Australia and she understands why they left the country. Her classmates from Law School barely get by, apart from three or four lucky ones who have managed to get the 100K salary that comes with a one-bedroom house and a small car.
She has slept hungry three times, since the COVID-19 pandemic swept the world and the boss in her firm requested her to take an unpaid leave. She comes from a middle-class family where she was taught the culture of saving, and she had managed to put aside 79K in the past year.
She never discusses her situation with anyone, and her mom must have used her motherly instincts to smell trouble, and she has been covering her part of house rent, 10K of 20K, as she stays with a friend in a one-bedroom in Ruaka.
She used the 79K to buy an academic writing account, 70K for the account and 9K for a two-week training. She had gotten heads-up from her childhood friend who lives in Juja. She had looked well-off, according to Beryl, and she showed her how she has managed to stay above the waters since she gave up on looking for a job in 2017.
Beryl knows the unethical side of writing essays for other students, and she understands the short-termism of the practice. However, she also felt her ethical underpinnings sneak out of the window when she slept hungry, thrice. The industry didn’t turn out to be the gold she was promised, as her account was closed barely a month later and same way went her savings.
Beryl shows me her email “sent” items in the last two years. She has sent out a total of 3000 applications. At first, she was limiting herself to law, but she started applying for other jobs; customer care, teller, marketing and almost anything that just required a “degree.” Her best friend advised her to get her CV professionally done by one of the popular HR and Personnel firms in Nairobi. That didn’t bring any change.
The story of Beryl is the standard tale of most Kenyan graduates in the last decade. The male version is a little different, but still similar.
The Kenyan blogosphere has not helped matters. Young people are branded lazy, incompetent and inadequate, just because they cannot work their way to the top.
Of course, there are lazy people who would do better with their talents. Maybe step out of the house and hawk Mitumba or just find something to do. Some choose easy ways out like theft or engaging in transactional relationships for money. They know that having a sponsor is a direct flight to middle-class status, and they do not give a damn to the perceptions of the society on such relationships.
Wait, but the data?
According to an article by Business Daily, a leading Business and Economics Daily, Kenya has 13.8 million people between 18 and 34 years and 5.3 million of this population, or 38.9 per cent is unemployed. A further 3.7 million in the age group are not looking for work, either because they are in school or engaged in other activities.
Beryl is not part of that statistic as she has her job as a legal assistant. Actually, she fits into the category of privileged Kenyans who get employed after college. A discussion paper released by KIPPRA (Kenya Institute of Public Policy Research and Analysis) in 2018 showed that only 13% of degree-level graduates got employed in their year of graduation compared to 79% of graduates in 2011.
The situation is dire for Diploma students, as only 3% of the graduates got employed on their year of graduation in 2017, compared to 20% in 2011.
According to Kenya’s Economic Survey, 2020, the formal private sector added 46,100 jobs in 2019 with the public sector adding 22,298 jobs in the same period, creating a total of 68,398 jobs in 2019 compared to 78,400 jobs in 2018 which further compares to 114,400 jobs created in 2017, data that shows that the economy is on a free fall and more young people cannot find formal employment opportunities.
The situation is worse in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic that has devastated economies around the world. The bulk of economic growth in 2019 came in the food and accommodation industry that registered a 10.3% growth against the 5.4% for the overall economy. The coronavirus pandemic is expected to reverse this growth and throw the industry to pre-2019 levels.
The education sector registered a 5.4% and the impact of the virus on the sector means that the growth will be wiped out, throwing more people to the band of the unemployed, where they will face the music.
The travel sector will get the most pummeling from the pandemic, according to Fitch Ratings, as the sector may contract by 40% compared to the agriculture sector whose exports will contract by 30%, wiping up previous growth and employment opportunities for Kenyans.
These problems are expected to complicate the situation for Kenyans between 18-34 years, and fuel continued expansion of unemployment and destitution.
In the past, graduates have been encouraged to try acquiring technical skills or experience that would make them more attractive to employers. That may have encouraged the government shift in policy to promote technical courses and technical schools.
Other experts have encouraged Kenyans to try self-employment, an option that requires grit, resilience, capital and social capital. That explains why only 0.9% of eligibly employable Kenyans are self-employed.
The ideal solution would be a macro readjustment to motivate growth. That can be enhanced by a government determination to fight corruption and an introduction of measures to encourage investors to invest in the Kenyan market and create employment.
Anything less than that is victim blaminge Kenyans who have not been able to find employment opportunities.