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Kenya’s youth unemployment at 39%? Why this headline-grabbing number is wrong

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  • Highlighting the problem of youth unemployment in Kenya, a national newspaper said census data showed that 39% of the country’s young people were unemployed.

  • But not all people without jobs are counted as unemployed. Students, homemakers, those discouraged from looking for work and others are not part of the labour force.

  • The 39% rate is not supported by census data, or by statistics bureau officials. Kenya’s most recent official youth unemployment rate is 11.4%.

With the Covid-19 pandemic straining economies around the world, the public conversation is shifting to its consequences – including unemployment.

Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta recently outlined his government’s economic interventions during the crisis, saying the “possibility of job losses and loss of income” would weigh heavily on many. 

Accurate data will be important in any public debate on the economic measures needed. In late February 2020, a national newspaper led with a story on youth unemployment.

“Census: 39pc of Kenya youth are unemployed,” read the headline of the Business Daily article. The paper said that “more than a third of Kenya’s youth who are eligible for work have no jobs”, adding to the country’s “acute unemployment problem”.

It cited census data released a few days earlier which showed “that 5,341,182 or 38.9 percent of the 13,777,600 young Kenyans are jobless”. 

This figure, it said, was backed by the estimates of others such as the World Bank which showed that in 2015, Kenya at 17% had “the highest rate of youth joblessness in East Africa”. 

The Kenya National Bureau of Statistics has released some results of its August 2019 national census. (Note: The first three publications can be found here, here and here.)

The census put the country’s population at 47.6 million people.   

But are 38.9% of eligible young Kenyans unemployed? Put another way, is this the country’s youth unemployment rate? We took a closer look at the evidence. 

Readers ‘may end up feeling misled’

Joblessness does not always translate to unemployment, the journalist who wrote the Business Daily article told Africa Check.

“The 39% who are not in any meaningful economic activity could be full time students, they could be people who are incapacitated, or they could be people who have given up looking for a job,” the journalist said. 

“So, if somebody is reading the story with a stricter understanding of what unemployment is, they may end up feeling misled by the story.”  

Who are the youth in Kenya?

Kenya’s constitution defines “youth” as people who “have attained the age of eighteen years; but have not attained the age of thirty-five years”.

A youth tends to tomatoes in a greenhouse in Nairobi. Photo: AFP

In its 2019 census data, the statistics bureau gave the number of Kenyans aged 18 to 34 as 13,621,492. (Note: The data has a slightly higher figure of 13,777,600 when broken down by age groups.) Of these, 8,436,418 were employed. 

If the lower age group figure is used, the total number of unemployed works out at 5,185,074, or 38.1%. Using the larger one, the number of unemployed is 5,341,182, or 38.8% – close to the paper’s calculation of 38.9%. 

We asked a number of experts if the figure was accurate. 

Who are the unemployed?

Based on the census data, “the 39% figure is not correct”, statistics bureau director general Zachary Mwangi told Africa Check. 

For the details, he directed us to Robert Nderitu, director of production statistics at the bureau.

Nderitu said the error in the paper’s calculation was that a significant number of the population, such as “full time students, homemakers and the incapacitated”, were outside the labour force. 

The census report adds that in addition to these groups, retired people and people who are either too young or too old to work are also counted as being outside the labour force. All these groups are “formally referred to as the economically inactive”. 

The labour force therefore counts both the employed and the unemployed, but not the economically inactive. This means there are people who are not working for reasons other than an unsuccessful search for employment. 

These people should have been excluded from the calculation, Nderitu said. When calculating the unemployment rate, “the focus should be on the labour force”, he said. 

For those aged 18 to 34, the census found that 8,436,418 were employed. Another 1,647,484 were seeking work while 3,534,560 were not in the labour force.

The ‘strict’ measure

Nderitu said the data agency “usually follows the professionally laid down guidelines in computing the unemployment rates”. 

One such guideline, he said, was the “strict measure”. Here a person could only be considered unemployed if they: 

  • had not worked or held a job within the reference period (seven days before the census) 

  • had taken specific steps to look for a job within the reference period (four weeks)

  • were available to pick up a job if offered one

Total population not total labour force

Economists told Africa Check that using the total of 13,777,600 of young Kenyans without discounting the economically active skewed the unemployment calculation.

Dr Jacob Omolo is a labour economist at Kenyatta University in Nairobi. 

“That is not correct,” he said of the 39% figure. 

“You may have a total population of a cohort. That total population does not necessarily translate into the labour force, because out of this 13.8 million, we have those who are in school, those who are employed, those who are not employed but not necessarily looking for employment during the reference period.”

He added: “Those people who are in school, even if the jobs were available, they would not pick them, because they are not active labour market participants. We also have discouraged job seekers.”

Discouraged job seekers are those who have given up on looking for work or starting some form of self employment.

39% ‘overstated’

Kwame Owino, the chief executive of the Institute of Economic Affairs Kenya, agreed the 39% figure was not the youth unemployment rate.

Owino said this rate considers the entire labour force, but “these things usually depend on definitions”.

“Somebody who is in school, usually in education or some kind of training, is not considered unemployed because they are not looking for a job and unable to find it,” he said.

This number tends to be large, and if this was not accounted for, the figure of 39% would be “overstated”, Owino said.

Most recent rate is 11.4%

The most recent official data on youth unemployment is the 2015/16 basic labour force report released in March 2018. This gave the rate as 11.4%. New labour force figures released by the agency on 31 March 2020 did not give this rate, with the agency saying more detailed data would be released “soon”.

Owino previously told Africa Check that the “strict” definition of unemployment – that you have to be looking for work – could often be difficult to explain to the public.

A discouraged person – someone who has given up on looking for work or starting some form of self-employment – is considered economically inactive.

Owino said these people “are unemployed in the factual sense, but they are not unemployed in the sense of what that [strict] measurement adopts”.

Conclusion: Youth unemployment high, but 39% not supported by official data

To highlight what it said was an “acute” unemployment problem in Kenya, the Business Daily said the country’s youth unemployment rate was 39%, citing new 2019 census data from the national statistics office.

But the data does not support this figure, the statistics office and economists told Africa Check.

The most recent unemployment rate was 11.4%. Newer data is in the pipeline, the data agency said. 

Accurate data is needed to inform both the public debate and policy aimed at tackling what is undeniably an acute problem. 

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