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Kenya’s population – biggest asset or worst nightmare?

Last week I asked you to think differently about Kenya’s population numbers and demographic profile. Half our population is aged under 18. Good or bad?

Consider this: would you rather have the Japan problem? Japan’s population has peaked and is expected to decline for decades. That means fewer workers paying fewer taxes to support an expanding horde of senior citizens. Social security, pensions and national debt interest payments occupy more than 50 per cent of Japan’s national budget right now, so the government, sooner or later, faces some very awkward decions. Raise taxes sharply? Cut benefits deeply? Plunge deeper into debt? Open the borders to young foreign immigrants to become the working segment? All are highly unpalatable to the Japanese. Japan’s inability to have children may be about to undo it.

Japan is the extreme, but much of the rich world is graying and shrinking. Former French president Jacques Chirac put it forcefully: Europe, he said, would become “a place of old people, living in old houses, ruminating about old ideas.” Countries full of old people lack new thoughts, innovative new practices, and new investment. They also lack a working population.

Meanwhile, any country that has a young, skilled workforce stands to gain from this void. Nandan Nilekani, India’s visionary businessman and thinker, points out that his country, with 2 million English-speaking graduates and 9,000 PhDs being generated every year, is poised to become the world’s skilled human-capital reservoir. Countries like these will do the work the others can’t – and profit from it.

What would it take for Kenya to join this club? We certainly have a “youth bulge” happening, as many analysts have shown. But we don’t have much else going for us. 9 out of 10 Kenyan children make it through primary school, but only 1 in 4 receives a secondary education. As the Institute of Economic Affairs pointed out in a recent note, this is a very dangerous situation. It creates a pool of young people with minimal education, and very little prospect of getting gainful, lasting employment in a world that increasingly demands high-tech skills and is less interested in drone workers.

What do all those idle, disenfranchised youngsters do? You know the answer – they gave you a taster the minute the country teetered on a precipice after the ruinous election of 2007. Indeed there is no greater challenge facing us than turning our young people into meaningful stakeholders in our future.

There are many urgencies attached to this problem, if only our perpetually politicking leaders could stop dreaming about their positions and pay attention. Two words: education and health. Here’s why. Give people more literacy, more skills and more work opportunities; and simultaneously reduce infant mortality – you will have laid the foundation for a demographic dividend. You will allow the youth to generate more income than their parents; and you will allow them to choose to have fewer children than their parents. That creates a self-perpetuating cycle of falling social costs; rising incomes and savings rates; more investment funds; and a growing, consuming middle class.

Dedicated and imaginative policy moves are necessary. Our tired old budget allocations need to be thrown out of the window. The patriarchal view of women in the workforce needs to be shown its grave. We have to do innovative things to our ever-burgeoning informal sector. And we have to undertake a massive expansion of secondary and tertiary education.

If we don’t do those things, our demographic dividend turns out to be a time bomb. And so, returning to the question I posed last week: does Kenya have too many people? It all depends. If we turn our people into skilled and productive workers, then the answer is not at all. If our procreation results in waves of lifelong dependants, then we already have too many.

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