Part 1: In which Kenya’s young job seekers take matters into their own hands

Kenya’s social media hordes are in their element when a lynching is on the cards. Just ask Nigeria and CNN. Kenyans on Twitter (abbreviated as KOT), took sinister pleasure in raking both over the coals for perceived offences. KOT, however, isn’t just a perpetual rage machine. If you look past the top layer of professional provocateurs and corporate shills, you will find running underneath it, like a headline news ticker, the posts of ordinary Kenyans that accurately reflect their dreams, fears and anxieties better than any newspaper ever could.

This, hiding in plain sight, is Kenya’s stream of conscious. There is no better window into the country’s soul and what is troubling it. For example, in the last few months, there has been a steady drip-drip-drip of posts that provide a stark reminder of the desperate odds facing young job seekers in Kenya and the lengths they will go to change their lot. Tired of dropping their CVs in offices in town (stock response: “don’t call us, we’ll call you”), some young graduates have taken matters into their own hands, pounding the pavements with placards advertising their credentials and work experience.

The overwhelming feeling Kenyans who have gone through the 8-4-4 education system (yours truly included) have when they see these young graduates (most with more than one degree) begging for a job (any job!) is:” there go I but by the grace of god.” People rattle off the World Bank’s unemployment statistic (40%) like it’s some football score. Certainly no one is surprised desperate job seekers have changed tact. Chronic unemployment is like part of the furniture in Kenya. The new normal. You have to do what you must to stand out from the fray.

Max (he begged me not to use his real name), understands this “you’re all by yourself out here” reasoning better than most. He is one of the impressively-well-credentialed young Nairobians who have held up placards in the streets looking for work. Max says pure desperation drove him to it:

“I had to communicate loudly,” he says.

Max places the blame squarely on Kenya’s 8-4-4 education system:

“I expected to get a well-paying job immediately I completed my 8-4-4 system but it didn’t happen. 17 years of persistent hard work then spending years searching for gainful employment was not only tiring but frustrating,” Max explains.

“I think the current 8-4-4 system needs to be changed to suit the market job demand. This means specialization should commence as early as when joining secondary school,” he suggests.

Part 2: In which Kenya learns to “see” the elephant  

Max isn’t the only one pointing fingers. Many parents are angry too. Graduates aren’t just vessels of blood and flesh. For many families, they are an “investment” for which parents have made countless sacrifices, big and small. Think of the school uniforms. Think of the fees. Think of the extra tuition. Think of the pocket money, class trips and school “harambees”. Think of the tiny miracles parents had to perform to put together the money for all this.

All that sacrifice and toil only for their “investment” to be drafted into the solemn ranks of the unemployed. Parents have every right to be livid.

(“There was a king in Sāvatthi who addressed a man and asked him to round up all the persons in the city who were blind from birth. When the man had done so, the king asked the man to show the blind men an elephant. To some of the blind men he presented the head of the elephant, to some the ear, to others a tusk, the trunk, the body, a foot, the hindquarters, the tail, or the tuft at the end of the tail. And to each one, he said, “This is an elephant.”)

Many employers, meanwhile, complain that Kenya’s graduates just aren’t up to snuff. They blame universities for pumping out half-baked graduates by the boatload. On the flipside, some employers, as was highlighted in a startling piece published by Kenya’s Business Daily, say even though Kenya produces many qualified graduates for white collar jobs, the country lacks qualified people to perform tasks like specialised welding. So much so that Kenya last year had to contract 50 Chinese, Nigerian and Lebanese pipeline welders to help construct the new Sh43 billion Nairobi-Mombasa refined oil pipeline.

That’s the kind of news that has to stick in craw for any parent who moved mountains to get their child through school.   

(When he reported to the king what he had done, the king went to the blind men and asked them, “Tell me, blind men, what is an elephant like?” Those who had been shown the head of the elephant replied, “An elephant, your majesty, is just like a water jar.” Those who had been shown the ear replied, “An elephant is just like a winnowing basket.” Those who had been shown the tusk replied, “An elephant is just like a plowshare.” Those who had been shown the trunk replied, “An elephant is just like a plow pole.” Those who had been shown the body replied, “An elephant is just like a storeroom.” And each of the others likewise described the elephant in terms of the part they had been shown. Then, saying, “An elephant is like this, an elephant is not like that! An elephant is not like this, an elephant is like that!” they fought each other with their fists.)

The Kenyan government is under pressure to address the situation. About 800,000 young Kenyans enter the job market every year. These are not just 800,000 job seekers but a rich vote basket. It’s a constituency the government can’t afford to alienate. Something has to give.

(And the king was delighted. “All of you are right. The reason every one of you is telling it differently is because each one of you touched the different part of the elephant. So, actually the elephant has all the features you mentioned.”)

"Blind men and an Elephant” . Image: From Charles Maurice Stebbins & Mary H. Coolidge, Golden Treasury Readers: Primer, American Book Co/Wikimedia Commons.

“Blind men and an Elephant”. Image: From Charles Maurice Stebbins & Mary H. Coolidge, Golden Treasury Readers: Primer, American Book Co/Wikimedia Commons.

Inspired by the utterances of the Buddha, the story of the “Blind men and an Elephant” is a didactic little parable used to illustrate the difficulty of solving a problem without bringing together the opinions and perspectives of all the stakeholders involved. The blind men can never “see” the elephant independently. However, if they talk to each other, they can come up with a more holistic picture of the creature. In the same token, it’s important for Kenya’s unemployed, those in the private sector, academia and government to escape the cycle of blame and work together to solve the riddle of joblessness.

Thankfully, there’s already a model out there that Kenya can follow (to bring all the players to the table) and a partner, in Germany, to help make a success of it.

Part 3: Introducing The German-East Africa University of Applied Sciences

Kenya and Germany have grand plans for the new year. On January 20th the two countries are due to sign a memorandum of understanding for the setting up of an institution that will go a long way in solving crippling unemployment not only in Kenya but also in the larger East Africa region. To be based in Nairobi, the ambitions of the new university are consonant with its name: The German – East Africa University of Applied Sciences.

The planned school will be based on Germany’s famous dual education system which prioritizes practical learning for the benefit of industry. The dual education system, in operation since 1968, is so-called because it involves two interconnected facets in one course: apprenticeship in a company and theoretical learning at a vocational school.

Photo: Courtesy of Professor Prof. Marcus Baumann.

History of Universities of Applied Sciences in Germany. Photo: Courtesy of Professor Marcus Baumann.

Kenya’s Education Cabinet Secretary Dr Fred Matiang’i is eager for Kenya to reap the benefits of this approach:

“The time has come for the transformation of the education sector. We must train people who will find employment. Our tragedy is the huge number of youths with no skills for African development. We need to train them in a manner that is responsive to our development and the needs of our environment,” he said in a briefing after meeting Germany’s Minister for Foreign Affairs Frank Walter Steinmeier in December.

“We need a deliberate shift towards quality, relevant education that is responsive to our development needs. Otherwise soon we will start importing welders and basic skilled workers for the Standard Guage Railway and Tullow Oil projects”, warned Matiang’i.

Principal Secretary – Vocational and Technical Training. Dr. Dinah Mwinzi echoes her boss’ sentiments:

 “We need to address the issue of unemployment which has been caused by a mismatch between the education system and the training that we have offered to the young people and the requirements of industry,” she said.

Germany’s applied sciences model has had decades of success (it currently has about 356 apprenticeship occupations!) by putting a premium on fostering a link between industry and academia with government support. Dr Mwinzi thinks this could be the key to unlocking Kenya and the East African region’s potential.

“The University of applied sciences will be addressing the challenges of industry. When we can solve those problems, this will expand the employability of our young people because they will be directly working with industry to bring about the link between academia and industry” she said.

“This link has been missing for the last 50 years in a number of our programmes. If the link is created, there will be relevance and quality in the training of young people to serve the immediate needs of the society where they live and our growing industries,” she added.

Dr. Kevit Desai of Liwa (Linking Industry With Academia), sees the new programme as the perfect vehicle for creating the kind of relationship between government, academia and industry that his organisation has been championing for years. Dr Desai sees a bright future for Kenya if it follows Germany’s lead and invests resources in the applied sciences:

“Germany invests in applied sciences because it has the seen how it benefits its industries. Though we don’t have nearly the same resources, Kenya needs to jumpstart its productivity by focusing on applied sciences.”

One man who knows just how much Germany has benefited from the universities of applied sciences model over the decades is Prof. Marcus Baumann. Baumann, who could beat George R. R. Martin in a George R. R. Martin lookalike competition, is the Rector of FH Aachen University of Applied Sciences. Prof Baumann ran out of fingers listing the number of companies that recruit directly from the FH Aachen University of Applied Sciences. He says the reason companies are so eager to recruit from the institution is the students are trained, in an up-to-date fashion, to apply themselves directly to the particular problems and concerns of industry:

“Students write thesis to help companies to solve problems and if they do so successfully, which they always do, then they get a job,” says Prof Baumann, adding proudly: “They always get the job.”

How industry collaborates with academia in Germany. Photo: Courtesy of Professor Prof. Marcus Baumann

How industry collaborates with academia in Germany. Photo: Courtesy of Professor. Marcus Baumann.

Prof. Dr. Wilhelm-Günther Vahrson, the president of Eberswalde University for Sustainable Development, likewise has a lot of confidence in the ethos of universities of applied sciences and the kind of graduates they churn out.

“This program is a good mix between the ivory tower and blue collar,” he said.

Like Prof Baumann, Vahrson is exceedingly proud that the institution he leads gives graduates a leg up in the job market.

“What I am happy to say about our graduates is that they are employable” he bragged.

Prof Bauman likes to proselytize about the value of a problem-solving-oriented education as opposed to one chiefly concerned about “brilliant” theoretical ideas.

“We now are convinced that the industries in Kenya just as in Germany, need to focus on innovation, not just to develop brilliant ideas,” he says, adding that he encourages his students to get their hands dirty when learning.

“If you want to tell the workers what to do you also have to be elbow-deep in oil. I tell my students this all the time. You can’t just tell workers what to do, you have to show them,” says Bauman.

Prof. David Kimutai Arap Some, the CEO of Kenya’s Commission for University Education, agrees with Baumann. Prof Some thinks the focus on theoretical learning has led to some not-so-wholesome repercussions in Kenya and the country now needs to make a shift:

“One problem we have in Kenya right now is plagiarism. We’re creating a class of students who are experts at copying and pasting” he said.

“I think we need to move from theoretical learning to more practical studies” he added.

Part 4: Build it and the jobs will come  

Just in case it isn’t clear yet, the watchword here is “jobs”. How much of a difference will the new project make in Kenya’s job market? The German – East Africa University of Applied Sciences will have to contend with very high expectations. It comes with the territory. The good news is the project, if nothing else, is a harbinger of hope for Kenya’s unemployed.

Prof Baumann told me (a bit hush-hush) that several big German companies, including Siemens Medical, want a to dive into the Kenyan market but have concerns about getting qualified people on staff for specialised jobs.

Some German companies have already dipped in a toe. German automaker Volkswagen (VW) has opened up a new gleaming assembly plant in Kenya. Meanwhile, B. Braun Melsungen, the giant medical and pharmaceutical device company, has rolled out operations in Nairobi with the view of building a plant in future. Christian Clarus of B. Braun said the company was happy that efforts to create the German – East Africa University of Applied Sciences were moving along so smoothly.

“We would like to employ locals in our Kenyan operations so the University of Applied Sciences is good news for us,” he said.

Judith Hartl of solar energy company Mobisol GmbH, which has sunk its roots deep into Kenya (more on this in a later article), said the planned university will make the country even more attractive to German companies:

What we have realized after setting up in Nairobi is the there is a lot of talent around. What we are missing is an institution that will apply the talent in a creative way. We are very excited about the University of Applied Sciences” she said.

All this is music to Dr Dinah Mwinzi’s ears. The PS has devoted her life in the last decade to ensuring no Kenyan student, not matter their academic aptitude, is left behind. The PS hopes the University of Applied Sciences will help ensure that no Kenyan will have to live their life without experiencing the dignity of work.

 “For me it began in 2003 when I was at the University of Heidelberg. My Professor sensitized me on the need to be sure that education serves the needs of the community. That education must be relevant and must be working for the society. Otherwise, you could be educating people to go nowhere. This is what made me change from pursuing a career in lecturing to actually coming down to work on vocational and technical training,” said the PS about what inspires her to be such a passionate advocate for the setting up of the German – East Africa University of Applied Sciences.

With such total and unreserved support from top government officials, players in the private sector and academia, plans to establish the German – East Africa University of Applied Sciences should have no trouble coming to fruition.