The Role of Technology and Youth in Kenya’s Just-Concluded General Elections

“A great democratic turnaround”

Joe speaking to MBA students from Kellogg School of Management/Northwestern University during a recent visit to YTF in Nairobi.
Joe speaking to MBA students from Kellogg School of
Management/Northwestern University during a recent visit to YTF in

Kenya has been going through a transition of power through a general election – a cycle that typically runs every five years – and in reflecting following the election, it’s clear the time has come for a new chapter for Kenya’s youth.

Throughout Kenya’s history, and even more so in recent times, youth have been viewed by politicians as people to be used and exploited. Youth are often told that they will be the leaders of tomorrow, so they should support political parties or politicians of today as they await their chance in the future.

Youth in Kenya are also considered cheap labor, without opinions of their own, so it’s assumed they will simply conform to whatever they are told by politicians. Case in point: During Kenya’s darker days in the early nineties when the country was fighting for multi-party politics, youth were given small incentives—often between $2 and $5—to throw stones at a rival politicians. Shortly after the politician was elected; he inevitably forgot the youth he rallied during the election, leaving them frustrated.

Today, it’s becoming clear that trend of manipulation is fast losing its grip on the majority of youth in the country.

What’s Changing for Youth in Kenya

The government over the years has set up youth empowerment programs that help youth cluster together so they are able to get small loans and grants to start businesses in groups. This has helped a great deal to counter idleness as more and more youth are engaged in useful businesses.

The easy availability of low-cost unsecured mobile phone-based loans by banks have also helped advance youth opportunities. These loans enable anyone subscribed to get small loans that are payable within a short period, sometimes even days or weeks, or at the end of the month. This access to short-term, unsecured credit has greatly contributed to the success story that we tell today.

Despite these advances, we still have an outstanding challenge, as youth in Kenya are still largely unemployed. Those who are not involved in meaningful economic activities that can keep them engaged and keep them off drugs, crime and violence need additional outlets and avenues to find success. This is where organizations like Youth for Technology Foundation come in.

The Role of Social Media in Keeping the Peace

Social media has also played an increasing role as an influencer to combat violence issues, especially during elections. Given that 90 percent of Kenyans have access to a mobile phone and use them as a connection to the internet, major campaigns have been channeled through social media to keep peace, and maintain a spirit of brotherliness. The Youth for Technology Foundation is proud to play a part in investing in Kenyan youth, teaching technology skills in Kenya like basic digital literacy, software development and programming.

One funny thing happened during the election that helped quell some major tension that was creeping in between our government’s party and the major opposition party – an occurrence that wouldn’t have been possible without social media.

On the actual election day a man by the name of Martin Kamotho was photographed holding a plastic bag with the githeri dish (maize and beans) while standing in the election que. The photo was posted on Facebook, where someone found it funny and took it one step further, photoshopping the man into different photos and settings. The #githeriman photoshopping craze went viral – he even found himself as the new fifth head on Mt Rushmore!

This poor city council worker who collected garbage became a millionaire practically overnight, spurred by media appearances and a shower of gifts, just for having a cheap amount of githeri in a plastic bag. He united Kenyans in hysterical laughter during an uncertain moment in our elections.

Technology Enabling Peaceful Elections and Sustainable Communities

The elections are now over and there was no violence this time. While there was an election dispute between the government and opposition, they decided to square it out in the courts instead of war on the streets.

We know technology plays a huge role in election fraud and violence, particularly in developing countries like Kenya. We are preparing the future generation to be more interested in how technology can be used to ensure even more peaceful elections by giving them the broad skills that they can then apply to create more sustainable communities for their fellow citizens.

While we are not yet there in democratic electoral maturity, we are on the right track. Given the direction were going in, it is just a matter of time before electoral violence become a thing of the past forever.

Joe Kamau Macharia is YTF’s Country Lead based in Kenya.  He writes from Nairobi where he is responsible for building partnerships with the public, private sector and civil society. Joe is using his passion for youth and technology to help young people achieve their personal goals and become leaders in their communities.

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