Each year in Kenya, many youth migrate to cities like Nairobi, Kisumu, and Mombasa from rural settlements in search of “the urban dream.” Employment opportunities, electricity and better housing coupled with higher education lead them to leave their rural homes and family networks. Unfortunately, for most, the dreams they seek cannot be achieved easily. High unemployment rates, prohibitive school fees, and lack of housing thwart them.
So in order to survive, many turn to crime. Among young men, carjacking, highway robberies, breaking into homes and shops is a common crime, while young women may turn to prostitution and brewing illicit liquor. Younger adolescents and school-age children are used as shields when the police come into the informal settlements to try and apprehend criminals and illicit brews are easily transported in school bags which are least suspected.
A report released in late April titled "Critical Five Percent" notes that Kenya's workforce is projected to grow by 3.4 million people in the next five years, mainly from young adults entering the job market and that entrepreneurial jobs is where there is the most promise for new jobs. In my work as an advocate for 20 years in Kenya and as someone who grew up in the slums, I have seen this to be true.
Jhpiego, an affiliate of Johns Hopkins University, where I work, is an example of an organization fostering entrepreneurship among young people who may otherwise have no job prospects. Through a series of community discussions in Nairobi slums, we found that many youth have a desire to change their lives, but they have not been given opportunities nor tools to do it. In response, since 2011 we have undertaken a successful youth project to address this gap. What I have learned is that we can reduce crime and empower youth if we can understand why youth engage in those crime and, most importantly, if we provide them with alternatives through entrepreneurship.
With support from the Waterloo foundation, Jhpiego selects 150 youth per year in Nairobi who are identified through community mapping exercises and we work with them for two years. The youth, mainly ages 15-30 years old and around 60% are male and 40% are female, are divided into groups. The leaders of the groups go through a five day training in business skills. They identify which kind of business their group would like to start. The businesses include using water tanks to sell water to the community, building toilet facilities and charging a small fee for users, or garbage collection where tenants pay a fee for the service. Some youth leaders have chosen to collect used waste paper to make recycled jewelry or old fabric to make purses, table mats, and school bags.
By the end of the training, the youth devise these business ideas, what is needed to start the business, where it will be located and its profitability. Jhpiego supports each group to realize their business idea by providing them with the required initial equipment. These could be water tanks, clean up equipment, plastic grinders for recycling plastics, and sewing machines to create products to sell in international markets. They also receive mentorship and in some cases, Jhpiego assists in locating a market for their products. Follow-up meetings are held where they share their successes and challenges and get further training.
What is most exciting is how youth have a chance to show their creativity and be innovative. Two groups, for instance, are currently collecting plastics like plastic bottles, broken wash hand plastic basins, plastic containers for cooking oil, margarine and recycling them into pellets which are then sold to industries which produce plastic products as raw materials. Others have been given sewing machines and are making sandals out of used car and aeroplane tires that they then sell.
Since the program began in 2011, we have worked with more than 450 youths. The outcomes have been tremendous. At the community level, community members and police report a reduction in crime. In fact, one community chief said he has a new challenge: youth competing for jobs. And, besides giving the youth an income, these projects also help clean the environment.
The program’s impact at an individual level has also been substantial. After their time with us ends, most continue their business and have really become independent. Additionally, we have seen youth become mentors for other adolescents. Young mothers have formed clubs in which they train other young mothers to generate incomes and not depend on money gotten through crime. They have also organized slum conferences where different organizations make presentations about their work and how it can help improve the communities.
Sometimes it may seem like an insurmountable challenge to address crime and poverty. They are complex and challenging issues, but this project has shown all that can be achieved by simply providing youth with an opportunity to earn a decent living. I hope one day there can be programs like it in every community in Kenya.