Mark Maples, Amira Karim, Yuliya Gosnell, and Tommy Kim recently traveled to Kenya as part of the International Development Practicum.

Our Practicum focused on reducing youth unemployment through improving Kenya’s Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) system. Youth unemployment is a significant problem in Sub-Saharan Africa in general and in Kenya specifically. Around 20% of youth graduates are unemployed, and the problem is even greater for recent graduates. Given that Chinese construction companies account for around 50% of all of the new construction projects taking place in Kenya, Chinese companies represent a large untapped resource for improving TVET outcomes and reducing youth unemployment. The projects undertaken by Chinese companies range from apartment buildings to ambitious megaprojects, including a port and cross-country railway. These projects function as a cornerstone of Kenya’s Vision 2030 plan, which aims to make Kenya a middle-income country by 2030.

Our client was the Sino-African Center of Excellence (SACE) Foundation, one of the leading China-Africa research organizations. They have had success in piloting a partnership between a large Chinese state-owned enterprise and a technical school in Nairobi. They were interested in building on that success and brought in our practicum team to evaluate the TVET landscape and find opportunities for partnerships between private Chinese companies and TVET schools. We conducted over twenty interviews with stakeholders in the public, private, multilateral, and NGO sectors to build a clear understanding of the vocational education landscape in Kenya, as well as to identify potential partners.

We found that Chinese companies, despite their successes, struggle to find what they consider to be high-quality local workers. Challenges to employers can be split into two main categories, technical and cultural. Kenyan workers are perceived to have inadequate technical skills, lacking training on how to use up-to-date equipment or machines, and therefore unable to function at the desired level at worksites. Culturally, Chinese companies have failed to foster loyalty from Kenyan workers, resulting in absenteeism after pay-day and problems with worksite theft. 

On the Kenyan side, negative perceptions of Chinese business practices are also common. Anecdotally, we were told that Kenyan workers prefer to work for non-Chinese companies, as they expect to be treated worse by Chinese foremen. More broadly, Kenyan workers perceive Chinese companies as firms that import significant numbers of Chinese laborers who are then isolated in compounds, inaccessible to outsiders. 

As we dug into these perception issues on both sides we found that there was a significant opportunity for greater private sector participation in training programs for TVET graduates. 66% of Chinese companies in the manufacturing and construction sectors have active workforce localization policies, and 78% of large Chinese companies have in-house skill transfer or training programs. Therefore, we saw a convincing demand and rationale for the private sector to hire local workers. 

Once we were convinced of the opportunity, our focus turned to understanding Chinese companies’ motivations for participating in educational partnerships, and finding ways to reduce barriers for Chinese companies to engage in education initiatives in Kenya. The Kenyan TVET system is currently undergoing a transformational change. In the past two years, two new government agencies have been created to oversee TVET development, and there is still considerable uncertainty as to how the reforms will impact school procedures once the dust has settled. Given this context, we are working to develop tools to provide our client with a better understanding of the TVET system in order to improve their responsiveness, level of contribution to, and level of engagement in future partnerships between the private sector and education centers in Kenya. As Chinese firms continue to contract and become more involved in Kenya, effective local hiring and training programs will ensure a higher skilled workforce, and ideally reduce youth unemployment among technical school graduates.