The previous week has been quite an active one with International Labour Day followed closely by the World Press freedom Day. It was also in the same week that our respective leaders met in Nairobi to launch what was called an electronic single window system. I think in a layman’s language this is a facility that cuts down on the bureaucracy of having to go to many offices to clear the same goods.
The EAC leaders also took time to deliberate on the progress of the various Northern corridor projects like the pipeline from Kenya all the way to Rwanda and the railway line. All these efforts are geared towards deepening the integration process and speeding up the development of this region.
Indeed an integrated East Africa makes a lot of sense as a trading block and we should not take these projects lightly. As a block we are in competition with other African blocks or big economies like Nigeria, South Africa, Egypt, Ethiopia and many others.
I was impressed to learn for example that the Ethiopians are doing an impressive job as far as power generation and a railway project are concerned. I was particularly blown away by their Addis Ababa – Adama (Nazareth) expressway.
Coming back to East Africa, the Labour Day got me thinking about the challenge that we face concerning youth unemployment. In many countries unemployment is rarely tagged to the youth because of the different demographics involved. But in East Africa where those aged below 25 are the majority it is inevitable to talk about youth unemployment.
The youth unemployment challenge can be looked at from several angles. We have the clear shortage of jobs, the lack of skills, the low job creation levels (innovation). However way you look at it the crisis is already before us.
A few weeks back, Qatar Airways reminded us of this employment dilemma when it advertised less than 10 jobs in Uganda and Kenya. In Kampala over 3000 youths with their khaki envelopes showed up and queued for hours. When I first saw the photo of the long queues I joked that it looked like they were there to vote in a general election. The situation wasn’t much different in Nairobi.
What is clear though is that we need clear strategies aimed at job creation and we should stop just screaming at the youth to create jobs when we are giving them a half baked education. The current education system in most EAC countries is all about acquisition of certificates and not skills.
We have increased the number of universities and even university courses (sometimes by just duplicating them) all at the expense of skills development. We have continued to pay teachers poorly and thus attract the worst performers into the teaching profession creating a cycle of the same dilemma.
Where are the new factories that employ many youths, where are our plans for developing sectors like agriculture and tourism and making sure they swallow up more youths. Poor economic strategies have left us with what some call boda boda economics where youths sell off land and buy motorcycles to come and try their luck in the city.
The above can be seen in many other ways. Many times what we call growth is biased towards consumption with more shopping malls than factories coming up. When you go to these malls all you see are youths sells mobile phones and clothes and shoes mainly from China.
If we are welcoming investors we should be able to ask how many jobs they will create once we allow them all the goodies like tax exemptions. We also need to put more money in quality education as well as vocational education.
I know there have been efforts to send East Africans to the Gulf States like UAE, Kuwait, Jordan and Iraq for all sorts of jobs but again we have ended up with a lot of them just being used as slaves. Our governments seem less concerned with those who leave maybe because they are not voters.
The youth are the engine of our economies and we need to seriously find ways of tapping their youthful energy by giving them skills and opportunities. Again considering our demographics I think it is time we thought of lowering retirement age so that we do not have old hands stuck in offices doing what younger people can do better and faster.