Youth Unemployment in Kenya: My Journey as a Leading Economic Growth Student

Guest blog by Albert Waudo

This is a blog series written by the alumni of the Leading Economic Growth Executive Education Program at the Harvard Kennedy School. 65 Participants successfully completed this 10-week online course in May 2021. These are their learning journey stories.

What can I say?  This has been one of most interesting trainings I have attended in a while.  Right from the first class where we were asked to think about crossing a country in 2015 with a well-drawn map versus crossing the same country in 1804 when there was no map in existence.  This class sort of felt like the 1804 case.  I came into the class with a preconceived notion on economic growth and a set of ideas of how my growth challenge should be tackled by my organization and government, but I as the class progressed, kept leaning something new at the end of each class and adjusting my thinking as we went along.  This was PDIA in practice (Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation) a step-by-step approach which helps you break down your problems into its root causes, identify entry points, search for possible solutions, take action, reflect upon what you have learned, adapt and then act again.

The course was broken down into 4 components, reading and watching the weekly materials provided by the faculty, working on a weekly assignment, participating in a small group discussion and a live question and answer session with the faculty every Tuesday.  There were optional sessions with TA every Friday.

To do the weekly assignments, I had to watch the videos and read the materials provided.  Completing the assignments was a slog but was also the most rewarding part of the course.  The first question asked as we embarked on identifying a challenge to address was ‘Do you have data on your challenge?’  As you select the challenge, it is essential that you think about data around your challenge. Without data it will be difficult to complete the assignments.  You don’t need to have all the data at the outset, but different assignments will challenge you to look for different sources of data.  That said the assignments were very interesting and required a bit of research before you could complete them.  It was important to allocate sufficient time during the week to enable me to complete each of the assignments.   

The peer group sessions were awesome, listening to growth challenges from across the world and seeing the similarities among the challenges was very interesting.  The discussions were always very interesting and the was never enough time to conclude the discussion. Matt’s and Ricardo’s questions and answer sessions were never to be missed.  Their elaboration of the concepts learnt during the week and response to questions added clarity to the videos and materials read the previous week.

What key ideas/learnings did I take away from the course:

  • Product diversification and Exports are key for economic growth. 

From the classes I was convinced that my country must diversify its exports for it to grow.  It was clear from the classes that if a country only focuses on exporting raw materials, it will not be able to grow.  There was need to move to more complex products.  To develop complex products, there was need to develop knowhow.  If my country was to diversify, what products should it diversify to and how could it develop the know how to produce those goods was the question that kept coming to my mind.  The concept of monkey’s jumping to nearby trees brought the point home.  Basically, it is easier to diversify to products that are closely related to the technology you have than to those that are far.  Learning about and using the Economic Complexity Atlas to identify some of the products the country could diversify to was exciting.

  • Focus on the binding constraints – can’t ignore the aspects of politics and politicians

The next important lesson I learnt was focusing on the key binding constraints.  The powerful tools we learnt that helped us do this were growth diagnostics which we used to identify context specific binding constraints and combined it with fish bone analysis to help us focus on binding constraints.  It also became glaring apparent that on many occasions, the binding constraints were known and have been known for a long time.  The issue is are the politicians willing to address the constraints.

  • Working with and working for others

The third lesson I learnt is we can’t do this alone; I need to work with other.  Different people play different roles in addressing growth challenges, there are those who are authorizers, motivators, e convenors, connectors, problem identifiers, ideas people, operational empowerers, implementers and resource providers.

It was important to have a team that can convene various actors around a specific challenge.  This would enable the team to address the challenge holistically rather than one sector trying to solve the problem without talking to other sectors or government departments that can address the problem. It also helps bring together individuals who would otherwise not be talking to each other, for example investors looking for countries to invest in but not knowing where the opportunities for investment are.  Also talking someone who could help address the challenges they are facing as they try to invest in a country.

At the end of the day, economic growth was not an end in itself, it was about improving the lives of people, giving people an opportunity to find meaningful better paying jobs.

  • What insights did I have about my growth challenge throughout the 10-week time period?

I came into the course hope to find ways to solve the youth unemployment challenge in Kenya. Working in an office that focuses on agriculture, my challenge was how to use agriculture to foster economic growth.  In my mind, increasing processing of agricultural produce was key as well as finding new markets for agricultural produce.  However, after reviewing the Atlas of Economic Complexity, it became clear that focusing only on export of agricultural products was not going to spur the economic growth I am hoping for, there was need to find new products to export.  The need to acquire the know how to create new products was all too clear.  Attracting and retaining foreign direct investment to finance the new products and acquire new know is essential.  Addressing binding constraints along with the politics that surround it is paramount.  The importance of getting authorization and convening the right people around the table cannot be overlooked. 

  • How are you using, or will you use what you have learned in this course?

My colleagues and I have begun conversations with organizations we initially did not engage with and are hoping to continue engaging and finding solutions to challenges that have constrained economic growth and job creation in the country.

I am currently in a learning mode which involves gathering information around manufacturing, from documents and conversations with organizations like the Kenya Association of Manufactures to learn more about the constraints and the possible solutions to the growth of manufacturing.

To learn more about Leading Economic Growth (LEG) watch the faculty video, and visit the course website.

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