6 February 2018

Inspiring young people and creating hope for the future in Northern Kenya

“If I hadn’t joined a youth group, I myself may have joined al-Shabaab,” explained Noor Dahir, the charismatic Director of a Lamu Island-based youth group Kiunga Youth Bunge Initiative.

Lamu Island, known for its pristine beaches, laid-back atmosphere, and UNESCO world heritage town has until recently been spared much of the instability that has affected mainland Kenya. However, rapid social and economic shifts and an insurgency along the border with neighbouring Somalia are spilling over and impacting the region. Young people are particularly vulnerable to the negative and destructive influences that have become a serious threat to regional security.

Once a key part of the lucrative trading hubs along the ‘Swahili coast’, today, Lamu is one of most marginalised and poorest areas in Kenya with only 21% of people in formal employment, and some of the lowest literacy rates in the country. Only 13% of the 115,000 population have a secondary level of education or above. The disparity between Lamu and the rest of the country on these indicators and others have eroded trust between young people, especially, and government.

Recent socio-economic shifts experienced on Lamu Island are reflective of much of Northern Kenya. The Deputy Governor Abulhakim Aboud Bwana describes a familiar story of the perils of globalisation.

 “When I was growing up, the community was tightly knit, people shared everything. One person working could support their whole family,” Bwana explained. “Now Lamu is part of the free market. Tourism, mangrove, fishing: all are in decline and the only people with job security are those in formal employment, which is scarce. People are scared. They feel they have been left behind.”

The impact has been high rates of income inequality, inflation, unemployment and lower living standards. These have, in turn, been linked to rises in crime rates, ethnic tensions, discrimination and welfare problems, especially in the areas of education and health.

Education has become key to navigating this new competitive marketplace for young people, but as Deputy Governor Bwana points out, in Lamu:

“40% of young people do not attend secondary school. Many of those who do attend, drop out, then half of those who finish secondary school have no jobs to go onto afterwards. Young people need to be helped through the system, but instead they are getting left behind along the way.”

Walid Ahmed, Director of the Lamu Youth Alliance explains in more detail, referencing the extremist group which has also gained notoriety and influence in the region over the past decade.

“With no education and no work, the impact on society is crime, robbery, and drug abuse. We have a problem with heroin use. Women are made to marry too early to try and secure their future. Young people just drop out of the system. And then we have al-Shabab.”

Today, in an effort to spur economic development and create employment opportunities, the government is close to agreeing the $29 billion Lamu Port South Sudan-Ethiopia Transport (LAPSSET) project which seeks to transform the coast. The ambitious project includes a new deep-sea port, railway connecting Ethiopia and South Sudan, and oil refinery that will open up the largely under-developed ‘northern frontier’ to development.  A coal-fired power station is also being mooted.

Yet despite obvious opportunities these projects will bring, such massive investment and change pose challenges for northern Kenya. Rumours of these projects have already brought major inward migration, straining community relations and increasing competition for jobs. There are also, of course, serious environmental concerns.

The region faces opportunity, but also potentially greater instability. Whether opportunities will contribute to the equitable development of the region lies much in the participation of its young people.

Creating Opportunity for Youth in Northern Kenya
In response to these challenges, with the support of the European Union, the Aga Khan Foundation is working with Islamic Relief Kenya and the newly established National Council for Nomadic Education in Kenya to tackle the complex array of problems faced by youth in Lamu, Garrissa and Mandera counties.

Recognising the need for education and training, the Foundation is working with leading youth organisations and schools to provide the skills that young people need to take advantage of job opportunities. The Foundation is also working closely with local businesses to ensure youth are job-ready, and with local government to make sure youth are aware of the entitlements available to them.

Over three years, the goal of this initiative is to provide opportunities for 16,000 vulnerable young men and women aged 15 – 35, that will further support 25,000 members of families and the wider community.

The Foundation supports passionate local youth leaders who are committed to forging a more positive path for youth in Kenya. Walid Ahmed, head of Lamu Youth Alliance, grew up facing the same problems young people do today, but was able to navigate and excel with the support of those who saw a bright future in him. “My father raised our family earning a dollar a day, but when I completed high school, I was selected by a British Council Programme. I went to Belfast, Northern Ireland, to work with interfaith groups in conflict,” he tells us.

A colleague informs us that because of this work, he was invited by the Clinton Global Initiative in New York where he was recognised by Barack Obama in his speech in 2014. Despite the attention this brought, Walid has remained firmly committed to Lamu and its young people.

Noor Dahir, charismatic leader of the Kiyunga Youth Bunge Initiative also grew up in Lamu near the Somali border. Seeing young people in his community becoming victims of unemployment and drug abuse and falling into the hands of al-Shabab, Noor joined a youth group, eventually gaining employment with a local conservation project, and later founding his own local youth organisation.

The Foundation is supporting many civic organisations like these to help mentor, train and represent young people in Northern Kenya. These groups act as platforms through which to connect young people to opportunities and also to engage constructively with local government around local development issues.

Impressively, these organisations have begun to negotiate apprenticeship programmes with large private sector companies like Zarara Oil & Gas and Kenya Power as well as with local enterprises, such as carpentry workshops and beauty salons.

Abood, once an idle youth who hustled a living from tourists by the port, heard about an apprenticeship at Maja Ali’s carpentry workshop from Lamu Youth Alliance. He has now been learning the trade for several months. “One day, I want to set up my own business and employ young people like me,” he says.

The longer-term vision, according to Atrash Ali Mohamed, AKF’s Coast Region Manager, “is to invest in ‘super trainers’ to improve the quality of products, like furniture, that will help these businesses to grow and to be able to hire a greater number of youth.”

Mabruk Beauty Salon is an example of another business identified as having potential. With financial investment to purchase more equipment, it will soon be able to take on many more apprentices. Its young entrepreneurial owner, Nuru Mohamed Obo, feels a strong sense of civic responsibility:

 “There are many girls in Lamu living at home with no skills and nothing to do, I would like to help them.”

With the potential for tourism to make a comeback, coxswain training has also been identified. Trainees receive an official licence when they complete a subsidised course which allows them to legally provide water-taxiing services.

The Value of the Education Sector and Strong Governance

Partnering with local government, AKF is helping to connect young people to subsidised training opportunities in livelihoods that have been identified by government as areas of opportunity and growth. These include farming, livestock, and fishing.

AKF also works with Lamu Vocational Training Centre. An investment in basic equipment such as tailoring materials, electrical appliance training tools, IT hardware and sports equipment has seen class numbers rocket from a handful just a year ago to a new cohort of over a thousand.

AKF is partnering with the Ministry of Education to integrate values-based education across curriculums, promoting tolerance, peace, and pluralism, to unite disparate groups and build a buttress against extremist ideology.

A Focus on Strengthening Local Civil Society
Fundamental to the Foundation’s efforts in northern Kenya is a commitment to building and strengthening civic groups, such as Lamu Youth Alliance. AKF mentors and supports these groups to grow and flourish so that they can continue their important and essential work long after the end of the programme.

Groups are trained in accountancy, marketing, fundraising and public relations so that they are more resilient and sustainable and can even support other fledgling civic groups.

Anchored in their communities, and representative of peoples’ needs and aspirations, these groups represent the best hope for articulating a positive and inclusive vision for young people in northern Kenya.

A Brighter Future for Young Kenyans 

Major development projects such as LAPASSET offer immense opportunities for the region.  But within a climate of inequality, poverty and rapid change, these opportunities may too easily become further sources of competition, conflict and instability, leaving young vulnerable to alternative ‘youth groups’ such as al-Shabab.

The region is at a cross-road.

Investment in strong, local civil society organisations that promote values such as inclusion, tolerance and openness, is vital. These organisations are essential to help young people navigate the rocky road ahead, and a powerful bulwark against those that would seek to divide and harm them.

Long-term, groups like Lamu Youth Alliance and Kiunga Youth Bunge Initiative are critical for peace, stability and prosperity in the region, and AKF is proud to call them our partners.


Nick McGrath

Strategic Partnerships Manager, Aga Khan Foundation UK