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A staff member of a Kenyan car wash start-up. Photo by Boniface Muthoni/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Young Kenyans are not finding work: how universities can do a better job of training entrepreneurs

Kenya’s long-term development blueprint, Vision 2030, envisions an empowered youth driving economic growth. The focus on its young population (aged 15–34) is apt given that the median age of the country’s population of 55 million is around 20 years.

This has led to a succession of policies and strategies to address youth unemployment. The first national youth employment strategy ran between 2015 and 2017. The second was published in 2019. Other interventions have been made to fund youth enterprises, support businesses and offer direct jobs.

However, the challenge of high youth unemployment remains acute. Official government data shows that youth constitute 84% of the unemployed population. One of the obstacles identified is a mismatch between skills of the graduates and the needs of the job market. Significant numbers of young people remain unemployed or underemployed, despite being educated.


Read more: Millions of young South Africans are without jobs: what are the answers?


One reason put forward is that university curricula are too theoretical, lacking practical, real-world skills. A related problem is that universities are sometimes set up on the basis of political or religious affiliation, regardless of labour market needs.

We are business research scholars who co-led a recent study of entrepreneurship training programmes run by higher education institutions in Kenya. Using data from self-employed graduates and young entrepreneurs, we looked to identify gaps and opportunities in entrepreneurship training. We wanted to know what had worked or not worked in the graduates’ training, and what gaps they discovered when running their enterprises. We found that a majority of Kenyan employers perceived university graduates as ill-prepared for the workplace.

By identifying where current education and training programmes have fallen short, our findings provide insights into possible remedies. These include bringing other entrepreneurship ecosystem players into the curriculum development process. There could be benefits for all concerned: industry experience internships, access to mentorship, learning through solving real problems, inspiring innovation and entrepreneurship among students and staff, and technology transfer.

The project findings

Universities exist to create an environment where students are encouraged to pursue and embrace opportunities, explore new ideas, take intellectual risks, and begin the process of becoming researchers and innovators of tomorrow. But institutions all over the world need to partner with external market players to develop skills required to build industries, companies and products. Such partnerships are few and far between in Kenya, where universities design their own entrepreneurship programmes in isolation.

Our research project was conducted by KCA University (Kenya) in collaboration with the Youth Enterprise Development Fund and the University of Nottingham (UK). The Youth Fund was chosen as an enterprise support partner because of its network of young entrepreneurs across the country. This gave the researchers access to their database of over one million young entrepreneurs.

We set out to investigate why youth entrepreneurship training and education programmes in Kenya had not enabled young graduates to create, innovate and sustain their enterprises.

First we documented their day to day experiences to understand their points of pain and potential gains. We also looked for gaps in training programmes offered by universities and business development service providers. Finally, we mapped the range of entrepreneurship education and training programmes available.


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We found that most graduates found their training was too theoretical and didn’t give them the practical skills they needed. For example, one participant aptly summarised their experience:

When it comes to business, the real story on the ground is different. We were taught marketing 101, but the way we do marketing on the ground is different from what we learn in theory

The approach to the training was also centred on teachers rather than learners. Tests focused on revealing what learners had “got right”, rather than areas that still needed work.

Curriculum content was borrowed from the global north and largely disconnected from local realities. For example, most case studies came from large corporations in the Northern Hemisphere, yet micro and small enterprises dominate the local context. And faculty members lacked practical industrial and entrepreneurship experience.

What next

The shift required is multi-faceted. Firstly, curriculum reform at university and other tertiary institutions is essential. A more hands-on, practically oriented curriculum is needed, with elements like peer mentorship, digital online marketing and ways to continue learning and growing. Higher education institutions must stop trying to develop the curriculum in isolation and rather work with stakeholders from the labour market and the youth.

Universities and industry should collaborate more. This could take the form of guest lectures from industry professionals, problem-based challenges, or partnerships for internships and apprenticeships. For example, Safaricom, Kenya’s largest telecom company, has partnered with several universities to offer hands-on training and internships.

Successful reform would result in graduates who were immediately employable, having both the technical skills and soft skills demanded by employers. It might then take less time for graduates to find work, and more graduates could start their own businesses. Success would also be reflected in the growth of the economy, with increased productivity and innovation.

With a well-educated and skilled workforce, Kenya could position itself as a hub for innovation and economic growth in Africa. This is not only about individual success stories but about uplifting entire communities and driving national development. Investing in youth education is investing in the future of the country.

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