Keen Kenyans

Despite 40 per cent unemployment and lack of infrastructure, an entrepreneurial spirit has lead many young Kenyans to prosper

Kenyan eyes open wide in disbelief when I tell people about the opposition in Britain to the Welfare Secretary Iain Duncan Smith’s proposed benefits reforms. Unsurprisingly, given their unemployment rate of 40 per cent, Kenyans could never afford an unemployment benefits system. Ordinary citizens find the whole idea somewhat alien. A strict “no pain, no gain” culture prevails. Further than that, it is generally accepted that in order to get a job in the first place you need to pay. No matter what your qualifications, you will not get a position unless you have the means to bribe your way to it. And Kenyans do pay: it is estimated that an average person pays 16 bribes per month, making Kenya one of the world’s most corrupt countries (144th out of 159 on the Transparency International Index).

Yet this has surprising unintended consequences. Workplace corruption and nepotism unleash a very strong spirit of entrepreneurship among Kenyans young and old. If you cannot get a job, you create it. Business is the order of the day and everyone seems to be doing it. Mobile phones, introduced to Kenya just 10 years ago and now hugely popular (some 80 per cent of Kenyans over the age of 18 have one), make doing business much easier. The informal sector of the economy, i.e. non-waged workers, is more than four times larger than the formal one, according to government statistics. With trade and retail forming the largest part of it, Kenya is a nation of shopkeepers nowadays. Kenyans are hampered by the lack of capital, infrastructure and accountability, but their enterprising spirit leaves one  both envious and hopeful for a prosperous future. 

Yet recent history also makes the dangers of youth unemployment painfully clear. The violence that erupted in Kenya after the rigged 2006 elections, killing 1,300 people and displacing thousands of others, was neither spontaneous nor tribal, as was first believed. Like the Rwandan genocide, it was orchestrated by feuding politicians who played not so much on ancient ethnic hatreds as on the sense of exclusion of the masses of young people, who do not participate in the economy. 

The Nairobi slums of Kibera and Mathare, where more than a million people live without water or sewage on a dollar a day, are full of young men whose only occupation is hanging around. These are not bad boys: they are just idle and bored. In those fateful days after the elections, it was possible for calculating politicians to hire and organise any number of these men to loot, pillage and kill for less than $5 per head. William Ruto, now suspended as higher education minister, is being investigated by the International Criminal Court at The Hague. There is no guarantee, as long as these potential cohorts remain unfulfilled and restless, that the mayhem will not happen again. The devil might not be finding work for idle hands but extremist politicians certainly are.

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