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Opinion piece by Dr Kibaru-Mbae and Siddharth Chatterjee

Kenya is at the cusp of a “demographic dividend” that could change the country’s fortunes in the first half of the 21st century, but only if the country takes the right steps towards investing in its youth.

Millions of people in East Asia were lifted out of poverty by lowering the dependency ratio and individuals and families were able to make savings which translated into investment that boosted economic growth in countries such as Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong.

Combined with robust policies in education, health, employment and empowerment of its women, they were able to capitalise on their demographic window during the period 1965 to 1990.

Today, young people form two-thirds of Kenya’s population, many of them unemployed. In fact, the ratio of youth unemployment to overall adult unemployment stands at 46 per cent, according to the 2009 Kenya Population and Housing Census.

At the same time, there are eight dependants for every 10 working Kenyans, meaning that the average worker will very often have little left to save or invest for growth. Kenya’s low Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita of $1,246 has contributed to increased family poverty and economic inequalities.

Our ability to seize the opportunities available for our young population will depend on how we address the key challenges plaguing Kenya’s education, health and vocational training.

If Kenya does not act, the demographic dividend risks could become a demographic disaster, since armies of unemployed, frustrated and unemployable youth fall prey to the blandishments spread by extremists and fanatic groups.

Kenya is at a demographic transformation stage. Fertility levels are declining gradually and Kenyans are living longer. There is reason for optimism that Kenya can benefit from a demographic dividend within 15 to 20 years. It is estimated that its working age population will grow to 73 per cent by 2050, bolstering the country’s GDP per capita 12 times higher than the present, with nearly 90 per cent of the working age in employment.

Window of opportunity

But this is only “a window of opportunity”, which shuts in 29 years, on average. There’s nothing pre-ordained about a youth bulge producing a growth dividend.

The demographic dividend can be realised through a number of steps. First, improvements in the health and nutrition of girls, women and children, will contribute to a reduction in the number of children born to each family.

It calls for programmes to increase access to family planning to prevent unintended pregnancies leading to fewer births. Reductions in fertility coupled with child and maternal mortality declines are all associated with a greater power for women to make decisions about how many children they want and how to raise them. As they stop spending their most productive years bearing and raising children, they can enter the workforce and contribute to economic production.

The second step is investment in the education of youth. Appropriate skills will enable youth to participate in the economy and provide needed labour. In addition, studies have shown that girls’ education, particularly at the secondary school level, and empowerment, will delay early marriage and slow adolescent fertility. Cultural, social and economic barriers that hinder empowerment of girls and women should be addressed.

Women are half of Kenya’s population; if they are given the right tools and community support, they will not only become financially independent, but also the engines that drive Kenya’s growth.

The third step is to have an economic environment where educated youth can find well-paid jobs. Economic policies must target job creation in areas that have potential for longer term returns, including technical and vocational education, agriculture and technology.

Dr Kibaru-Mbae is the director-general, National Council for Population and Development, while Siddharth Chatterjee is the UNFPA Kenya Representative.