A Kenyan youth working in the hospitality sector.
Kenya’s current population of approximately
54 million people is predicted to
double by 2050. In contrast to a global trend towards aging economies, Kenya boasts one of the most youthful populations in the world. According to the East Africa Institute’s 2019 Whole Youth Development in Kenya Report, the median age of Kenyans is estimated at around 19 years old, where about 78 per cent of the population is under 35 years old.
defined as persons between ages 18 to 35, hold a pivotal role in shaping Kenya’s progress, but this is contingent on the right investments. Traditionally, high youth populations have been
cited as a potentially destabilising factor for societies. The general consensus is that there is a strong correlation between the youth dependency ratio and instability. This is thought to be in part, a result of strain on resources, high unemployment and poor integration into key social institutions necessary for collective cohesion. In Africa, there has
been some pushback from young people with respect to the narrative that paints them as a threat to a stable society.
While there are concerns of pitfalls that come with having a high youth ratio, Kenya’s burgeoning young population brings much excitement for its economic implications, to be specific—the
demographic dividend. This term refers to a period of accelerated growth that may result from a sudden shift in the age structure of a population due to declining birth and mortality rates, whereby the ratio of working age persons to the number of dependents (elderly and children) increases.
The African continent has recognised the opportunity for progress implicit in its young people if that potential is seized through strategic investments. The 28th African Union Summit announced its 2017 theme as “Harnessing the Demographic Dividend Through Investments in the Youth,” and connects this vision to “Agenda 2063” which offers a comprehensive overall vision for the continent. The African Union and its partners launched a
roadmap geared towards expediting the implementation of a continental initiative on the demographic dividend for Africa.
Countries responded – including
Ghana who have developed roadmaps to domesticate the African Union Roadmap.
Zambia have incorporated demographic dividend principles into national plans while Kenya has made some assessment of the costs of implementation.
One of the goals of the Kenyan government, as expressed in the
UN Development Assistance Framework (2018 – 2022), is to front-load the realisation of the demographic dividend by concentrating on four interconnected pillars: Education and Skills Development; Health and Wellbeing; Employment and Entrepreneurship; and Rights, Governance and Youth Empowerment. Using the
DemDiv modeling tool, Kenyan models indicate that a combined scenario of investments in family planning, education, and economic policies could provide great benefits to Kenya. This has led to policy recommendations that especially emphasise family planning, thus promoting a drop in fertility rates and balancing the population’s age structure.
Historically, East Asian nations such as South Korea were able to transform the youth bulge into a demographic dividend by
implementing several national reforms. South Korea made a rapid transition from high to low fertility, while simultaneously experiencing an annual growth in per capita
GDP of 6.8 percent between 1960 and 1990. South Korea’s progress was made in part by creating regulatory environments where small businesses could flourish. Investments were also made in education and health, family planning was introduced and the country adopted an export-oriented development strategy for its economic policy. South Korea may serve as a learning point for Kenya, as the former was able to successfully transition from an agricultural economy to industrial and then more recently to services.
Achieving the demographic dividend requires concerted efforts by stakeholders as well as systems re-thinking. Skills training is inadequate without job creation in the formal economy that can contribute to GDP, policy recommendations are futile without indicators/monitors of progress to ensure long and short sustainability, family planning is ineffective without empowering women, and socioeconomic corruption undercuts faith in public systems.
In a recent State House address, Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta commented that young people are
Africa’s biggest untapped resource. “[T]he greatest resource…is not what is below the ground, but it is the men and women that God has given us who given an opportunity can help transform not just their respective countries…but the world at large.”
The extent of the demographic dividend phenomenon is yet to unfold and it is far too early to tell whether the opportunity presented has been seized or squandered. Aga Khan University’s Vice Provost
Dr. Alex Awiti says, “…Africa’s demographic is not a dividend, at least not for now or the foreseeable future, and especially under a business as usual scenario.” However, in the interim, it is worth acknowledging where progress has been made.
Part II of this article will take a closer look at some of the challenges for the Kenyan demographic dividend through policy recommendations and its connection with the gender dividend.
Melissa Tirkha is a research assistant in the Paediatrics Department of the Aga Khan University Hospital, Nairobi conducting research on quality of life for children with cerebral palsy.