As the curtain falls on 2014, our thoughts are filled with both sweet and not so sweet memories. Individuals, communities and nations, have experienced mirth and grief, hope and despair, triumph and tribulation. Some of these experiences will be etched forever, in our hearts and minds; the stuff from which legend, myth, superstition, wisdom and history is crafted.
Evidently, breathtaking transformation is underway in our families and communities, in our nation and in our region, in our continent and in our world. The youth bulge, rapid urbanisation, economic growth and declining per capita productivity in the smallholder farm, have precipitated monumental transformation, especially in our country and in the East African region. These changes are perhaps inevitable but they are unprecedented. Of much grave concern is how these transformations will affect the socioeconomic and political equilibrium in our country and region.
For the first time, the most dominant group – socially and politically – is not poor uneducated rural farmers. It is the youth. They are young, creative and aspirational. Relative to their parents, they are better educated. However, unlike their parents, they are coming of age when rapid economic growth is characterised by fewer opportunities for decent work. For example, about 1 million young men and women enter Kenya’s labor market annually. But the economy generates less than 60,000 jobs in the formal sector.
Millions of Kenyans of school going age are out of school. Moreover, majority of our children are trapped in failing public schools and besieged by an education system crafted in logic of the industrial age. More than 40 percent of the children who finish standard eight do not have functional numeracy and literacy skills. Over 50 percent of graduates from our universities are not fit for work. Most young people agree on one thing; our education does very little to prepare the youth for the world outside school.
The differential learning outcomes between rural and urban schools and poor and not so poor children magnifies social and economic inequality in our societies. It curtails, severely, the potential to spread more evenly the fruits of economic prosperity. Lack of equity and social inclusion in education derails the capacity of education to balance the forces of economic growth, enable fair competition and equal opportunity and reduce inequality.
The youth, enchanted by the charm of the city, leave their rural villages in the hope of a better life. Without skills, and the right social networks they are confronted with unemployment, poverty and squalor. They become part of sad characteristic of Africa’s urbanism; where young dreams come to perish. Because, Africa’s urban space is where the rate of return on capital truly exceeds the rate of growth of output and income. It is orders of magnitude harder for the descendants of rural peasantry to get a toehold on the economic ladder in the city.
Hence, a fundamental transformation of the rural economy is an essential first step toward achieving equitable and inclusive economic growth. Smallholder rural agriculture, especially per capita productivity and profitability must increase. Smallholder farming must rise beyond subsistence production. The millions of smallholder farm families must become the fountain of agro-based industries, driving value addition. Rural agriculture must create the space for women to lead small and medium cottage industries. This will in turn, leverage the capacity of youth to innovate with ICT and develop appropriate solutions to connect and integrate agricultural value chains.
The kind of capitalist growth we see in Africa today inevitably generates unsustainable inequalities that corrode the foundations upon which a just and inclusive society is built. Discourse about the mechanisms that generate inequality and social exclusion is at the heart of the political economy. Enlightened politics and progressive social policy can reign in inequitable accumulation and distribution of wealth, harness Africa’s demographic dividend, leverage the surge of urbanisation,. resuscitate moribund rural economies and make the promise of education real for all of Africa’s children.
As a public intellectual, with the privilege of studying, thinking and reflecting, I grapple with urgent and pressing issues of our time. I am mindful that that my efforts are both imperfect and incomplete. Such incompleteness and imperfection provides the essential scaffolding for continuing in 2015, the urgent and collective task of building a just and inclusive society. I am eternally grateful for your readership in 2014. I wish you much happiness in 2015