Raphael Obonyo – A Young Leader Making A Difference

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There is no denying that youth unemployment is a major threat to the achievement of Kenya’s Vision 2030, the country’s long term development blue print. Since 1964, the issue of youth employment has occupied the agenda of successive Governments in post independent Kenya. However, despite the Government’s efforts, a significant number of Kenyan youth remain unemployed, underemployed or underpaid and most importantly un-heard.

One of the greatest issues facing the growth of the youth in the country is misrepresentation. We’ve seen it everywhere especially in Kenya; in youth summits and youth forums, most of the time the highest number of people present in these forums are aged above 40 years. How are the issues of the youth supposed to be effectively addressed if majority of the stakeholders sitting at the table are not the youth?

Meet Raphael Obonyo, a dynamic, influential and great leader intent on being that voice. He has gone out of his way to be where he is and after more than a decade, Raphael is not only a member of the UN-Habitat Youth Advisory Board and co-founder of the Miss Koch initiative – a girls’ initiative that has supported more than 300 girls to attain high school education but has also established the Obonyo Foundation which has widened access to education opportunities for brilliant but needy children.

He is nothing but a restless dreamer and he displays extensive knowledge and experience in public policy, international development, governance, and youth inclusiveness, as reflected in his published works, “Conversations about the Youth in Kenya”. This is his story.

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Tell us a bit about yourself. Who is Raphael Obonyo?

I am an influential voice of African youth to policy makers. As the continent’s representative to the World Bank’s Global Coordination Board of the Global Youth Anti-Corruption Network and a member of the UN-Habitat Youth Advisory Board, I remain audible in critical circles of influence. I am also a Global Young Diplomat, a 2014 Crans Montana New Leader of Tomorrow and an Emerging Leader with the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

I am also the recipient of Duke University’s 2012 Policy Star Award, holds a Master of Public Policy (MPP), a Certificate in International Development (CID) from the prestigious institution. I’m also a Ford Foundation Fellow, and I run several development projects.

In 2015, I was named one of the Most Inspirational Youth in Africa. I am also a nominee for the 2015 UN Nelson Mandela Award, and 2015 Global Youth Voice, and a finalist for the Business Daily’s 40 under 40 Top Men in Kenya.

You have had expansive opportunities to work with highly recognized organizations. What has your role entailed so far?

My main role has been to ensure inclusion of youth and their voices in policy and decision – making and development programmes at different levels; local, national and international.

How did you get into the UN?

In 2010, I was nominated by young people from Korogocho to sit in the UN Habitat Youth Advisory Board then I battled it out with other nominees across the globe. In May 2012, the UN officially confirmed me as a special envoy. I advise the board on policy and innovative strategies of engaging the youth.

You are also considered one of Africa’s influential personalities, especially with the youth and matters concerning entrepreneurship and employment?

Unemployment is a big burden to many young people across Africa. Unemployment among the Youth in Africa is a ticking time bomb. We must fix the challenge that is unemployment. One way of doing that is to promote entrepreneurship.

You have also launched a book, ‘Conversations on Youth in Kenya’, what is the book about and what led you to writing it?

Conversations About the Youth in Kenya, which was launched in February this year looks at the youth’s participation in the democratic space and nation building, pointing out the challenges they face and how their participation could help create opportunities that benefit them.

I was inspired to write the book by two things: First, my personal passion to give every young person a chance to realize their potential.  In the book, I discuss the opportunities open to the youth and what we should tap into as a country to make progress. The book seeks to provide creative solutions to some of the challenges that the Kenyan Youth face.

Secondly, I am convinced that youth have to tell their own story – about possibilities and their worth, vision and values. There are over 35 million people in Kenya who are under 35 years that is about 80 percent of the population. That to me, is exciting, as I have seen the great things young people are capable of doing and with this, I seek to draw hope from these young Kenyans.

In your own opinion, what are some of the methods that governments can adopt to help the transition into entrepreneurship easier, especially for the youth?

Like many African countries, Kenya has a huge youthful population. It is noteworthy that youth aged between 15-34 years constitute about 70 per cent of the Working Age Population that is estimated to stand at about 19.8 million people. The group aged 15-34 years, however, is the largest among the unemployed in the Working Age Population. Tragically, the national unemployment rate stands at 40 per cent with youth constituting at least 75 per cent of the total unemployed people in the country. Moreover, about 500,000 youth join the labor market every year. In essence, unemployment remains the single most serious problem facing youth in Kenya.

But the Government doesn’t seem to have found the right formulae to tackle youth unemployment. A number of policies, programmes and initiatives have been crafted to try and address youth unemployment. Some of the youth employment programmes and policies that stand out include the National Youth Service (NYS), Youth Polytechnics, Youth Empowerment Centres, Youth Enterprise and Development Fund (YEDF) and Kenya Youth Empowerment Project (that included Kazi Kwa Vijana-KKV).

Unemployed youth across the country are depressed and driven to the point of desperation- a major cause for insecurity, crime, and drug abuse among other social ills. Recently President Uhuru announced that the Sh6 billion that was set aside for the run-off will be channeled to the youth fund. The move is welcome, but there is need to ensure that policies and systems are put in place to ensure that the funds benefit the youth. Most important, the Government should not just throw money at the youth, it should train them on how to start and manage businesses. Also, it is imperative for the county Governments to prioritise and create an enabling environment for job creation particularly for the youth.

Make no mistake, high youth unemployment will impede the growth and development of the county Governments if it is not addressed effectively. Crucially, Government needs to provide more resources for youth entrepreneurship. If youth entrepreneurship is not a priority in national budgets, then this whole drive to tackle youth unemployment won’t get very far. We must realise that the Government cannot deal with youth unemployment alone. We need to create about 500,000 jobs every year to tackle the high unemployment among youth. Private sector, Governments, academia and the media all need to join forces to address youth unemployment.

What is your most sensitive area when it comes to championing for the youth?

Youth and governance. Young people are facing serious livelihood challenges, and they want to have that sorted before they can engage on any discussions about governance. They fail to realize that the two must go hand in hand. The challenge is for the youth to think long term.

You are also quite the young influential leader. How can you advise more young people to embrace the spirit of leadership?

The youth have the potential of changing the future of Kenya and can help the country unleash its full potential. Across the country, leaders are getting younger, especially with the advent of the 2010 Constitution. Kenya’s Senate is ranked as the most youthful in Africa for having the highest number of young senators.

But youth leadership that is based only on age is not a silver bullet. The value of youth lies not only in their age, but also in their vision, creativity, and values.

Tell us about Koch FM and the Miss Koch initiatives.

In 2006, I co-founded Koch FM, a community radio station that educates Korogocho residents on human rights, harmonious co-existence, and the importance of education.

Violent robberies, rape and child prostitution were rampant in Korogocho. In 1999, only aged 18 years old then, and a youth leader in Korogocho; I mobilized other young people in the neighborhood so as to change the negative perception of insecurity and crimes. That is when I co-founded the Miss Koch Girls Education Initiative, a beauty pageant, so that I can get residents to appreciate the beauty within the area and not destroy it. This brought people world over to Korogocho to see not just poverty, insecurity and crime; but the beautiful and good things coming from within. The initiative organized dinners that raised scholarships for needy and brilliant girls from Korogocho. Over 300 girls are beneficiaries of the education scholarships. This saw a reduction in the number of under-age girls engaging in prostitution in Korogocho.

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You have had quite the rough upbringing. Please tell us more about your childhood and how that has helped drive you to where you are now?

Having grown up in Korogocho slums, I experienced childhood poverty first-hand and knows too well what this can do to a child’s dream to pursue education. This is one of the reasons as to why I have the interest to push the youth agenda in the country in matters unemployment, education and development at heart.

Poverty does two things, it can make you hopeless and helpless and you end up miserable. But it can also give you determination to want to get better and do better.

What would you tell the youth in regards to the importance of getting good education is concerned?

I strongly believe that education – both formal and informal can transform lives and develop societies.

If Kenya wants to ensure its stability and prosperity, we must establish and support more opportunities for young entrepreneurs. The way to do that is to provide the legal framework and facilitate young people to establish their own businesses. Also, we should establish youth-friendly financial services and address the need for access to credit for youth to start businesses.

If you would like to interact with Raphael you can find him on twitter at @RaphaelObonyo.

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