Kenya has a young and growing population, which has the potential to transform the country’s economic fortunes. However, to achieve this transformation, the government will have to improve the quality and relevance of the skills young people possess when entering the labour market. This necessitates sustained improvements in the education system at all levels, from primary to tertiary.

Much has already been achieved in terms of access, but there is certainly more to do, particularly with regards to the quality and range of educational opportunities. As such, the next few years will be crucial in determining how Kenya fares as its working-age population grows.

The country’s basic indicators have been moving in the right direction and compare well with the region. The net primary enrolment ratio, for example, had reached 84% by 2012. This compares to a figure of 62% in 1999. It is also competitive with sub-Saharan Africa, where the enrolment ratio was 76% in 2010. The global figure was 89% in the same year. For secondary education, the net enrolment ratio at this level stood at 50% for the 2008 to 2012 period, according to UNICEF.

The situation is better at the lower secondary level with a gross enrolment rate of 91% in 2010. This compares to a regional sub-Saharan figure of 46%.

Improving Access

The improving situation is a testament to government attempts to improve educational access in the country. The Free Primary Education (FPE) programme introduced in 2003 has been the main driving force behind school attendance. In 2002 net enrolment at the primary level was 61.7%. By 2009 it had grown to 82.7%. The government is trying to do for secondary education what it has already done for the primary system. In June 2015 the government announced that it would offer free education at both the primary and secondary level by 2018. President Uhuru Kenyatta told the local press, “My government has raised its capitation to secondary schools from KSh28bn ($308m) to KSh32bn ($350m) and for primary schools from KSh14bn ($154m) to KSh15bn ($165m). All this is done with the objective of making primary and secondary education truly free within the next three years. Indeed, from this year, parents will be freed from the burden of paying examination fees because the government will now cover this expense.”

The government’s commitment to building an accessible and effective education system is illustrated by the heavy public spending in the sector. Education is designated to receive 15% of the national budget for 2015/16, second only to energy and infrastructure, which received 18%.

In 2012 the figure was 21% and the year before that it was 20.4%. The hope is that allocating a fifth of public spending to education will also push up secondary enrolment rates in the country and improve access and quality across the board.


In spite of the high level of access, there is room for improvement in terms of attendance figures. In 2012, UNESCO reported that Kenya had the world’s ninth-highest rates of school absenteeism, with 1m children still out of school. In May 2015 the Kenya National Parents Association (KNPA) suggested the situation is even worse than this. More than 2m children are prevented from accessing education by illegal fees levied by schools, according to the KNPA. The association has sued more than 4000 schools nationwide for charging illegal fees.


Basic educational outcomes in the country remain mixed. A 2012 UNESCO report found that amongst men aged 15-29 years old who left school after six years of education, 6% were illiterate and 26% were semi-literate. For women in the same age bracket, the figures were 9% and 30%, respectively. The comparison with historical precedent is not particularly favourable. In 2003, 24% of women were illiterate or semi-illiterate after six years of schooling. By 2008 the figure had reached 39%.

For example, a 2014 report on educational outcomes found that over 80% of third-year primary school students (approximately 8 years old) are unable to read or do basic mathematics.

As a result, there is an ongoing push to ensure that curriculum and teaching quality reflect the efforts that the government is putting into improving access and attendance. This is especially important in light of the country’s demographic bulge.

Indeed, Kenya currently has a massive youth cohort that is poised to swell the ranks of the working population over the next two decades. Of Kenya’s almost 46m people, 60% are under the age of 25. This means that the country currently has a dependency ratio – the percent of the non-working-age population to working-age population – of 80.9%.

However, as this significant youth population enters the workforce, and with smaller populations of young and old people, the burden on the country’s welfare system should be reduced, taxable revenues should grow and productivity should increase. However, this requires ensuring the emerging labour force is adequately prepared.

“So far we have managed well in terms of creating access,” Darius Ogutu, senior deputy director of education at the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology, told OBG. “The challenge is the increase in numbers, which has stretched the teaching staff, but as it normalizes it will be much more manageable in the next three years. The first cohort of mandatory education is now in secondary school so it is placing a stress on this system,” he added.

Curriculum Development

The main challenge then becomes coping with demand from the labour market. “We must come up with training programmes that are relevant to the labour market and produce graduates that are competent in fast-changing technology,” Ogutu told OBG.

As part of this process, the government is looking at curriculum reform and is keen to get input from the private sector to make educational content more relevant to employment opportunities. “Discussions with the private sector are key,” Ogutu told OBG.

The reform programme will focus on basic education in particular, although it will address the whole system. In January 2011, a task force was established to align the education system with the government’s Vision 2030 and the 2010 constitution.

As part of the recommendations resulting from this curriculum review process, the task force called for a formal structure that lays out the expected competencies at each level of education.

This structure includes a 14-year basic education cycle that is free and compulsory and a higher education cycle. The basic level will include two years of pre-primary education, six years of primary and six years of secondary education.


While the government is seeking to establish a well-defined curriculum at all stages of the education system, it is also focused on improving quality through IT. As a first step in this process, Kenya has embarked on an extensive electrification project. In May 2015 President Uhuru Kenyatta announced that 20,590 schools have been connected to the power network across the country. The whole project, encompassing the connection of a further 1630 schools, was scheduled to be finished in July 2015.

The process of bringing schools online has also already begun. By July 2015, more than 150 schools in Nairobi had been connected to a high-speed fibre network under a pilot scheme carried out by the Kenya Education Network and the county government of Nairobi. The project has used the Wanachi Group’s fibre infrastructure at a cost of $2m. In total, the project, which began in April 2014, will provide ICT services to 2715 schools in the Nairobi area.

These infrastructure developments will lay the groundwork for the government’s ambitious plan to deliver 1.2m laptops to all public primary schools in the next two years. The plan will cost KSh17bn ($187m) and in September 2015, the government opened bidding for the procurement of the laptops.

Following an initial pilot phase covering 150 schools, the government will be working with the private sector to develop educational content.


Boosting teacher numbers is another way of improving both employability and outcomes. The student-teacher ratio in the primary segment stood at 52 to 1 in 2013, down from 54 to 1 in 2010, according to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics. At the secondary level, the ratio was 32 to 1 in 2013. These figures, particularly at the primary level, hinder educational quality, with the ratio reaching as high as one teacher for every 100 students in some of the country’s schools.

The government has taken some steps to address this issue. In the summer of 2015, the National Assembly Committee on Education put forward a proposal to increase the budget of the Teachers Service Commission so that it can recruit an additional 10,000 teachers in the 2015/16 financial year. While this will be welcome news, the main aim here is replacing retiring teachers rather than expanding the numbers overall, according to the ministry.

The Kenya National Union of Teachers has also called for the recruitment of at least 30,000 new teachers in the coming financial year. To meet the UN recommended teacher-student ratio of one teacher for every 35 students, Kenya would need to employ an additional 79,000 teachers.


To do so would require some strategic fiscal thinking on behalf of the government, given that teachers’ wages represent 83% of the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology’s recurrent budget. As such, a large increase in teacher numbers would require a substantial expansion of the ministry’s budget, particularly considering that there is already significant pressure to increase wages.

Indeed, in January 2015, 200,000 primary and secondary school teachers went on strike seeking a 300% increase in their pay. The minimum monthly wage for a state school teacher is KSh16,692 ($184).

In August 2015, the Supreme Court upheld a lower court’s ruling that granted teachers a pay increase of as much as 60%. “Teachers’ pay has been addressed. In court cases, they have been awarded pay increases. Teachers’ pay is comparable to other civil servants and the trends in the labour market in general,” Ogutu told OBG in August 2015. The president, however, has said subsequently that the government cannot afford the pay rise. Consequently, teachers returned to strike action at the start of the school year, shutting down the whole public school system. As a result of this action, students missed the first five weeks of school, with teachers finally suspending the strike in early October.

Private Sector Participation

To alleviate some of the burden, Kenya is also looking to increase private school enrolment, with some visible results. Findings from the African Population and Health Research Centre released in the first half of 2015 show that 47% of primary school students in Nairobi, Mombasa, Kisumu, Eldoret, Nakuru and Nyeri have entered informal private schools.

Private education has been growing since the introduction of the FPE programme in 2003. Between 2005 and 2009, private school enrolment more than doubled, growing from 4.4% to 10.5%. This is not simply the result of public sector failings.

New private schools have become cost and quality competitive with their state sector peers. According to a study by the Brookings Institute, 64% of students in private schools pay fees that are less than the median funding levels per child in the public system.

At the lower to medium end of the private school offering, fees range from $1500 to $3000 per year for primary education. At the secondary level, average fees in this segment range from $300 to $3500 for each academic year.

Furthermore, private schools are more competitive on outcomes. A World Bank report found that English and maths test scores for Grade 4 students in private schools were higher than their public school counterparts by 16% and 10%, respectively.


Another consequence of the reform agenda is a plan for greater devolution in the organisation of the education sector. Under the amended 2010 constitution, responsibilities across a wide range of areas are being devolved to the county level. In the education sector, this has already led to the development of village polytechnics.

However, county governments are now requesting responsibility for a number of basic educational institutions as well. The Ministry of Education, Science and Technology is currently discussing this possibility with local authorities. “But to have national responsibility means that you have nationally assured standards, because different county governments operate at different levels,” Ogutu told OBG.

Within this framework, local institutions are supporting the national education system. Village polytechnics, for example, are easing the burden on the secondary education system and creating opportunities for children who would otherwise be out of the education system. These institutions are funded by county governments and take 14- and 15-year-olds and give them four years of vocational training.

Technical Training

Indeed, across the board, the government is pushing for the expansion of technical training colleges to support employment opportunities. “In Kenya, we’re too focused on the academic. Everyone wants a degree. But the biggest demand is for mid-level skills where we need technicians and technical skills. So we’re setting up technical training institutions in each region and constituency in the country,” Ogutu told OBG.

There are currently 150 of these facilities under construction, and in the next two years there will be one technical training institute in every constituency, with 300 nationwide, according to the ministry. The government has committed KSh3bn ($33m) for technical training institutes in 2015/16.

However, the appetite for technical courses remains limited. In 2015, only 11,523 candidates applied to the country’s 50 middle-level colleges even though they have a combined capacity of 41,550 students. John Muraguri, the chief executive of the Kenya Universities and Colleges’ Central Placement Service (KUCCPS), told the local press, “We have to encourage students to join technical vocational education and training (TVET) institutions. Parents should also change their perception on these institutions. At the moment, every person wants to join university yet we have limited space.”

Interns & Apprentices

With as many as 800,000 new entrants to the job market every year, and a lack of technical skills among graduates, businesses are taking the initiative in education, although with the support of the government. “Collaboration between the education sector and the private sector needs to be improved, but such cooperation should be facilitated by the government,” Francis Adoul, vice-chancellor of the Technical University of Kenya, told OBG. “What would help is a comprehensive annual report on the needs of the private sector, which would allow universities to adapt their resources accordingly in response to the needs of the nation’s economy,” he added. In June 2015 National Treasury Cabinet Secretary Henry Rotich the said that firms that take in 10 new graduates on 6- or 12-month internships will receive tax rebates, although he did not specify the size of the rebate. “I urge employers and the business community to take up this opportunity and help us build a resource base of skilled manpower,” Rotich said in his budget statement.

Some companies are working directly with universities to improve the quality and job readiness of new graduates. IBM, for example, has partnered with 12 Kenyan universities to improve curricula and foster technology skills in areas such as big data, mobile computing and Web 2.0 application development.

“We are working with universities in Kenya to train and certify faculty members and students in the areas of the latest emerging technologies to better align university curricula with the IT Industry’s needs and trends,” Nic Nesbitt, general manager of IBM East Africa, told Business Daily Africa.

These efforts will be crucial given the difficulties facing public universities. Indeed, at the tertiary level, the public sector has been facing something of a funding crisis. In June 2015, the Higher Education Loans Board (HELB) announced that it was facing a shortfall of KSh2bn ($22m) required to extend student loans. The Treasury allocation of KSh7.5bn ($82.5m) would not be enough to cover the 67,124 new entrants to higher education, according to HELB. While the board has funds to cover the 135,000 continuing students, it needs a further KSh1.2bn ($13.2m) for loans for freshman students and KSh800m ($8.8m) for operational costs.


The Kenyan education sector benefits from a number of comparative advantages, including improving educational access and strong government support. Yet there are still many challenges. Although the government spends almost a fifth of its total budget on education, it still suffers funding shortages for vital services such as teachers’ salaries and student loans. However, the government remains optimistic in its vision for the sector, including plans to invest heavily in ICT and empower local county governments, as well as encouraging greater private sector participation. This should provide a range of opportunities for investment, from low-cost primary and secondary education in underprivileged areas to tertiary technical colleges and supplementary services for public universities. While the goal of universal education is a noble one, the fulfilment of the government’s vision for the sector will require financial and technical input from the private sector.