Kenya needs digital skills and inclusive strategies to connect young people with productive jobs

Kenya’s Community of Practice on Digital Skills and Jobs met for the second thematic discussion on digital skills, inclusion and education. The participants identified need to rethink education and upskill strategies as a crucial way forward to respond to an increasing demand for digital skills across sectors.

News | 25 September 2023
Nairobi, Kenya (ILO News) - Technicians and professionals are required to have specialized digital skills, not only in tech and innovation sectors, but across all sectors and industries in Kenya. This rapidly evolving context calls for rethinking the strategies used for reskilling and upskilling the workforce to take advantage of the jobs and entrepreneurship opportunities emerging in the digital economy.

Against this backdrop, Kenya’s recently established Community of Practice (CoP) on digital skills and jobs to foster an inclusive digital economy gathered in a blended webinar on digital skills, digital inclusion & education on September 25, 2023. The event brought together key stakeholders, including government representatives, private sector leaders, and providers of training and digital services, to discuss the path forward.

The digital skills gap represents a major challenge slowing down the digital transformation of the Kenyan economy. This shortfall harms business competitiveness and productivity as the number of workers with tech skill does not match existing digital economy needs. Talent under-utilization is also detrimental to quality job creation and labour market outcomes, especially for the population affected by the digital divide, as pointed out Caroline Njuki, Chief Technical Advisor for the ILO in Kenya. She also stressed the importance of bridging this gap, especially in rural areas where technology exposure and digital-skills training are limited. She also invited the CoP to reflect on the type of skills and the sectors Kenya should be developing because investing in skills is vital to a country’s economic growth and competitiveness. “Finding responses to the following questions becomes crucial for Kenya: Is platform work our best option? How can we make it work in favour of longer-term job prospects, decent work, and inclusiveness?” Njuki asked.

Caroline Njuki, Chief Technical Advisor for the ILO in Kenya

Digital labour platforms leading to economic transformation?

Conversations on the necessary skills in the digital economy are taking place worldwide. Uma Rani, Senior Economist at the ILO, shared results of her most recent study on Understanding and improving women’s work on digital labour platforms and highlighted the role of digital labour platforms in quality job creation. “Digital labour platforms have penetrated a myriad of sectors, from education to agriculture and it holds immense potential; however, some concerning trends emerge, with increasing precariousness of high-end and high-skilled workers in Information Technology (IT) and other services sector with reallocation of work, with tasks from workers in the global North being replaced by global South at low piece rate wages”, she pondered. According to Rani’s research, there is evidence that the platformization of the economy reproduces gender disparities and other decent work gaps from the traditional labour market to the digital one. These findings bring nuance to discussions of the opportunities offered by the online gig economy.

Still, “looking at the trends, technology will be one of the key drivers of the economy” stated Grace Kaome, representing the Federation of Kenya Employers (FKE). This means we need to incorporate these challenges in our discussions and in policy dialogue and, to that effect, Artubert Makori, representing the Ministry of Labour and Social Protection, added, “The Ministry's dedication to promote job opportunities is complemented by a focus on social protection, health, and safety. We're actively addressing the challenges of the digital era to uphold fair labour practices.”

While regulation is being discussed, important work has been done by the private sector and non-governmental organizations. A consultant for the British Council highlighted the benefits of the community-led-model in training of trainers, whereas the Next Step Foundation has been exploring flexible approaches to skilling, increasing access for learners who have other obligations at home.

A balance between technical and soft skills

Demand for digital skills is growing and employers around the world are hiring people that have both technical and “soft” skills. This trend is also visible in Kenya’s labour market. Paul Breloff, CEO and co-founder of Shortlist, a recruitment agency, emphasized, “Skills such as self-management, discipline, and adaptability are increasingly sought after by employers; young people who demonstrate initiative and can work autonomously are highly valued”. One way to address this gap is promoting learning on the job through internships and apprenticeships or, in some cases, by means of simulated work experiences that allow youth to develop these important skills.

One of Kenya's key strategies for the digital future is youth empowerment through digital skills development. Priscila Maina, representing the Ministry of Information Communication and Technology (ICT) and Digital Economy, outlined the government’s vision to train thousands of citizens in digital skills. The Ajira Digital Program, a multifaceted initiative, has already trained over 100,000 youths in various digital skills. “These efforts are essential not only to nurture a skilled workforce but also to prepare Kenya’s young population for the digital age”, said Maina. “The government’s initiatives together with important work done by various stakeholders are driving the country towards a promising digital future,” she added. With a focus on skills development, infrastructure, and inclusivity, Kenya is poised to emerge as an example of how to harness the potential of the digital economy for the benefit of all its citizens.

Inclusivity in the digital economy

Bernard Chiira, Director at Innovate Now, highlighted the importance of inclusivity, particularly for people with disabilities. “The digital space should be an equalizer, providing opportunities for all. While Kenya has made progress in training people with disabilities in digital skills, there's a need to ensure that everyone can transition into paid opportunities. Inclusivity efforts extend to creating accessible websites and technology, ensuring everyone can participate fully in the digital economy,” he shared.

Among other challenges to inclusion were tied to infrastructure and access to mobile devices. Kenya is working to bridge important gaps to create an enabling environment for the digital transformation to go beyond urban areas and the nation's leaders are committed to addressing the challenges of the digital divide affecting women, young people, and their peers in refugee communities, stated Maina.   

Developing a link between market-driven skills link and the digital economy is essential to reduce poverty and to improve the future of individuals. Providers of education and training need to align their offer to accommodate this surge in demand, emphasized Njuki. Policy-makers also need to invest in providing the necessary infrastructure and labour market policies and services to support successful school to work transitions and the adaptation of the workforce to emerging digital technologies. The CoP is collectively working towards a digitally inclusive society where everyone has the opportunity to access decent work.

Still, the digital economy and engaging in digital work requires, by its very nature, international standards. In that sense, The International Labour Organization (ILO) is set to discuss a standard for platform work in 2025. Kenya's active participation in this dialogue can help shape international standards and regulations regarding the gig economy, ensuring fair labour practices in the digital realm.

The CoP is facilitated by the PROSPECTS programme in Kenya and the Opportunity Fund project on the Promotion, inclusion and protection of refugees and host communities in the gig economy, with the generous funding of the Kingdom of the Netherlands.