In the face of high youth unemployment, social enterprises in Kenya seek to promote work opportunities through ‘decent’ jobs. But is the focus on employment figures enough to transform people’s livelihoods? LSE’s Stephanie Cantor spoke to youth in one of Kenya’s largest slums, Mukuru, and asked what it means to make work meaningful.
Kenya is one of Africa’s fastest-growing economies, but unemployment remains rampant with around 40 per cent of the population in 2019 jobless. Even more concerning is that approximately 85 percent of those unemployed are under 35 years old.
The problem of youth unemployment is not unique to Kenya. It is a globally recognised epidemic so universal that Goal 8 of the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) notes the importance of generating ‘decent jobs’ for young people.
While some argue that simply creating jobs or providing ‘decent’ work for people in poverty is enough to change lives, my research found otherwise. I spent six weeks in Mukuru, one of Nairobi’s largest informal settlements or slums, understanding what young people aged 18–35 perceive as needed to create meaningful work to transform their livelihoods. My goal was to help organisations design life-changing employment opportunities, such as through my own social enterprise Akili, which creates transformative employment for youth from disadvantaged backgrounds by leveraging localised training resources.
Meaningful work provides the ability to flourish
The majority of current work opportunities for Mukuru youth provide a meager paycheck. They often work dead-end jobs that do not provide a pathway to improve their livelihood. First-off, salaries are oftentimes below the minimum wage of approximately 13,500 Kenyan Shillings (KES) per month. Jobs are also unreliable, meaning the work itself or compensation is not guaranteed. Other opportunities demand long hours, unrealistic targets and hard labour. To escape these difficult situations, many Mukuru youth quit their formal employment to work multiple informal positions at the same time, creating a ‘bouquet’ of gig economy jobs.
Conversations with youth revealed they want to love and feel passionate about their work, while having opportunities for growth that would open up future opportunities. When these criteria are met, the narrative changes drastically to one of hope, motivation, satisfaction, peace of mind, enjoyment and pride both in and outside the workplace, directly supporting Western literature on meaningful work and the characteristics of human flourishing.
If we know that creating jobs is insufficient to change lives meaningfully, how can we design appropriate jobs for Kenyan youth?
Four elements of meaningful work for youth in Mukuru
Through twenty in-depth interviews with youth in Mukuru – 12 males and 8 females between the ages of 19–28 – I triangulated themes that emerged from conversations with youth from similar a disadvantaged background – nine youth between the ages of 18 and 24 – who were working in a job they found meaningful. Each participant came from a slum or rural village in Kenya.
The results were combined with components of existing meaningful work theories and motivation models, such as self-determination theory, which posits that motivation is grounded in the three human needs of competence, relatedness and autonomy to feel connected to their work.
My research found the following key elements that should be pushed for in workplace opportunities, used by organisations such as Akili, which can help create an ecosystem that fosters meaningful employment:
Autonomy and flexibility: flexible working hours coupled with independence from a boss or acting as one’s own boss;
Competence and skills growth: ability to complete work and the opportunity to grow and acquire new skills through work;
Relatedness and expanded network: connectedness to the people in the workplace and the opportunity to grow one’s network through work; and
Ability to make a difference and create impact: this can be done either directly through work or by using income.
While there are existing work opportunities for youth in Kenyan slums, enterprises and organisations with a mission to improve the lives of young people through employment schemes should enhance their solution model to include the above elements. This will provide the kind of work youth really crave. For enterprises like Akili, these are low-cost and easily implementable, meaning such organisations can move beyond mere employment figures towards work found to be meaningful.
Photo: photographer in Kenya. Image by Nina Stock from Pixabay.