Do you even Want to be Middle Class Anyway?


I was strolling on YouTube when I came across an interesting video termed ‘The Birth of a New Underclass’. I thought this referred to some western concept but by the third minute it was clear it was talking about us – my generation, the millennials! You all know how good YouTube is at packaging related videos; I had barely watched the video quarter way before I saw videos that gave us an even more dramatic characterization – we described as ‘The Lost Generation’, ‘Generation Jobless’ among others.

This information was at odds with what I have always known and the narrative most of us subscribe to – That you move up the social ladder into the middle class not to an Underclass. Obviously this got me thinking; what is the middle class anyway, what would make someone like you or me one? What I read next was applicable at a personal level but also to the work I do in leading the UReady Employability Program.

Apparently, the term ‘middle class’ was first formally used by the French to describe a certain social group between peasants and nobility. There are many tags and labels used to identify one as a middle class in different societies but one stood out for me – the acquisition of a tertiary education. This specific label is of importance to me not just because I work with graduates but because the so called ‘new underclass’ describes this group of degree holders and terms their dream an illusion.

I have been privileged to share in the joys, challenges and hopes of the African graduate youth. I know going up the social ladder is important to us – after all education is pitched to us as ‘the key of life’. And, if the middle class is a person in a social hierarchy between working class and upper class then you know working/employment is a precondition to this rise. This is where the rain starts beating us!
Clearly, tertiary education has remained the unchallenged pathway to the middle class through opening up access to employment opportunities. However, if current data tells us anything is that university education is no longer a ticket to this coveted place.



This sounds like a very negative outlook of things – if the middle class is becoming more and more of a mirage, what is left to hope for? Fortunately, there is what we can prepare our youths for called ‘The New Middle’. Thomas Friedman in his book ‘The World is Flat’ intimates that there is a new space in the social ladder that will be dominated by those able to create premium value in the new world of work. This is our commitment at UReady Employability Program – to train youths boasting not of their graduate degrees but demonstrating that they can combine knowledge from different areas to create new value. We are asking the so called ‘half baked’ graduates to ‘Ask Us About Employability’ i.e. Ask about about skills necessary to play in this new middle economy. Think of the result as- a mass communication student applying comedy to grow the employers viewership or also offering content development to companies for social media; an engineer combining design with retail sector merchandizing among others.

Could I be getting ahead of myself to even suggest that people should dismiss the middle class dream? I don’t think so, neither am I the first. The Huffington Post run an article declaring middle class ‘A Meaningless Term’. The writer gives two compelling reasons:
1). The idea of middle class has become divorced from income
2). The lifestyle we associate with being middle class is largely unachievable on a middle-class income nowadays”

So if jobs remain scanty and the middle class is a concept of a bygone era – what does the new middle graduate skills, jibs and requirements look like? Nobody knows for sure but everyone knows it is a different space altogether. What we know is that getting work (I did not say a job because the concept of a job is itself changing) will still be critical. We can already hear new terms such as ‘gig economy’ that is associated with this new middle. The gig tell us that careers of the future will not be long paternalistic relationships with an employer but short term output based engagements. In the new middle a graduate will like work for multiple employers behaving as a freelancer; her CV will no longer have bullets of positions held with an employer but will look more like a portfolio of mini projects for different employers.

So what do our youths and graduates require to create value in a gig set up. Tons of passion, boats of flexibility and top notch people skills. Take accounting for instance, few are willing to pay an accounting graduate $350 plus statutory obligations but they can pay a non-committal freelance fee of $100 for a need-based monthly freelance arrangement. In this situation, the successful new middle graduate will be the one with people skills to build a network of 10 clients for whom they will file tax returns, data entry and be on call for this USD 100 retainer per month.

Think of it as a graduate who will no longer sell a simple product like a toothpaste but a complex ERP system by Microsoft. He will require a combination of technical and business knowledge; he has to both explain a complex product in simple terms to a non techie as well as convincingly show the business value of that purchase. Mind you he will mostly be selling it to high level decision makers so his communication, networking, problem solving and commercial awareness knowledge has to be on point.



Complex ha! That is the new middle and it will handsomely reward those ready for it. We can help – Ask Us About Employability! Ask us about the skills that will matter most to you in this new middle and you do not have to worry about the middle class.

From a Throne to a Loan


Have you ever seen your dreams being stolen? Have you had to compete for unpaid work? Well, I have and I count you lucky if you haven’t. I have watched our young people being humiliated as they beg for a free unpaid internship. I have seen them rejected before their graduation is cake is even over. I have watched parents unseal envelops from the Higher Education Loans Board (HELB) thinking its a job only to find its a threat!

Yes, threat to remind them that their daughter or son on whom their bright future hinges is not only jobless but also in debt. Yes, I have watched the lines of sadness on our mothers faces form at the cruel reality that this job market owes them nothing despite all they did; all they went without and all they sold and borrowed for their children to one day sit on some throne of success. And now it is no longer a game of thrones – its a Game of Loans.

A bottomless pit for some driven by higher education debt incurred to acquire a credential that no longer produces value in the market place capable of supporting repayment. Today, I want to share with you the story of graduate student debt that is cripling many at the beginning of their careers.


What do you mean that you sense I am mad, of course, I sound mad, why would’nt I?
a). When we tell our graduates to become entrepreneuers since there are fewer jobs and some oblidge; but, even before their idea can come together they are listed in credit reference bureaus meaning they can never access the much needed business capital
b). When default rates on student loans are high and your solution is not to realize that the underlying asset based on which the loan was made is faulty and not necessarily the borrower.
c). When I see my brother becoming a serial intern and not a single employer wanting to compensate him even for bus fare – so basically I have to finance him to work for someone.
c). When I see a 16 year investment in a degree depreciate faster than the Japanese vehicles dumped on us.

Today, allow me to share my madness by highlighting what I believe has forced our precious resource (youths) into a game of loans with stark odds against them. I will explore three issues which I believe if left un addressed our higher education financing models will collapse and we can as well forget the Africa Rising narrative.

Lets explore each in turn:

1). High student debt/loan
In the case of Kenya, a university student admitted under government selection program graduates with an average of Ksh. 320,000/USD 3200 plus interest. Self sponsored students or those in parallel programs spend over USD 5000 – and yet these are modest lower end tuition fees for light arts programs and do not include cost of living, opportunity costs or interest rates. So why do parents or students themselves incur such costs? It is the belief is that education pays off. It is on this basis that students borrow directly or indirectly with the hope of paying with future returns. However, our graduates are not exactly off to a good start when they cannot land a first job but are often finding themselves in deep pit of student loan. It has turned to what many now believe to be a pointless debt – a lost gamble of dead end investment.

2). Serial Internships
This is a situation where most of our students and graduates have been turned into perpetual interns whom no one pays as if this is the only model employers know of. Worse still is how little these internships get them be it monetary or non-monetary value.

When we consider how effective the internship,  our prominent work force preparation method is in getting graduates ready for work and appealing to employers – then you are left with that feeling that I could be right. I hoped to be wrong because naturally an internship should be a soft entry into the professional world for a student leading to better incomes and ultimately loan repayment. Unlike popular thinking, an internship is hard to find and it is no longer a path to paid work. Ross Perlin in his book ‘Intern Nation’ terms what we are witnessing as ’employers who have chosen to view interns as a source of cheap and disposable labor; an very exploitative mindset instead of a helpful one that treats our students as a cost-free replacement of a paid worker’.

Despite his accurate sentiments, we are aware that this is an employers job market – the employer has most leverage if not all. Consequently, we see that there is competition for this unpaid work reinforcing the ‘Serial Internships’ phenomenon. While market supply justifies this from an employer perspective, it breaks down an implied social contract among businesses and the societies they operate within.

However, huge supply of graduates is not the only driver. There is a much central issue namely the structure of the internship itself. At UReadyAfrica we have noted that Kenya and many countries lack internship models – these are frameworks of structured engagement that would ensure that even if employers do not pay interns in monetary terms, there exists a framework through which some form of value accrues to the student. Ask 80% of employers today what is the documented value that has accrued to those students offering them free labor; ask them how they hold themselves accountable for such a promise. You will mostly hear meaningless buzzwords such as ‘we are providing you with work experience in a competitive space’. This nebulous state sees to it that graduates earn nothing and mostly learns nil and thus remain in the game of loans.

The last driver of serial internships is the growing situation where even these competitive unpaid internships reward well off students and punish those from poor backgrounds. Think of it this way, most opportunities are available in major country capitals whose rents, transport and food costs are high. Upon graduation, most students from poor backgrounds have to retreat to their villages since staying in town is beyond their means.

3). Depreciation of a graduate
Economist have begun to throw around the term ‘Education Inflation’ describe the emerging phenomenon where almost every young person you encounter has a post secondary qualification of some sort. This ensures a graduates is less likely to pay student debt on time. Why you ask? Well, because employers don’t want to hire them after graduation because upon graduating our youths logically have higher salary expectation and come with higher student debt.

In short, you are more valuable as a student and the day you graduate you change categories from student to unemployed. So do not let graduation ceremonies fool you, our youths depreciate overnight from celebrities to a sore nuisance in people’s offices, call logs and emails begging for unpaid work.

Most of graduates had never taken any other form of credit save for that student loan they filled in ignorance and pure ecstasy of being admitted into a university. Of course they ought and should pay all their debts be it student loan or other forms of credit – but to label them as fundamental defaulters based on student loan is cruel. To make their first credit history a negative boarders on….Anyway, some would argue that you pushed this higher education dream down our thoughts after all so take some responsibility that it is not turning out like anything you promised. For me, I want to hear conversations around employment and student debt that acknowledges the fundamental challenge of the higher education credential; that admits this is a new job market and the few jobs available can barely feed someone let alone pay high monthly installments. Let us have better repayment structures not crazy approaches like inhibiting youths from marrying until they pay! I look forward to a society that acknowledges it promised a throne and now it is delivering a loan.

Why Great Companies are not Creating Jobs

PSX_20170403_140432Yes, we are in trouble, huge trouble. This is because the pools of job creation otherwise known as companies are drying up overnight. Why so? There is a new business model orchestrated by a marriage of globalization and technology explosion. Let me explain:

Globalization was seen as the silver bullet of the 20th century. Factors of production (labor, capital, and entrepreneurial instinct) could move to their most product spaces. The opportunity to create wealth was immense. And wealth was indeed created only in a few hands.
– What we did not foresee was that a departure from national to global value chains meant our governments would have lesser control on employment creation and even final destination of gains. This was not a bad thing had they seen the entire equation besides their silent acquiescence to multinational demands for cheaper labor.
So we have a situation where something is invented in India, designed in America, produced in China marketed from Europe – with the parent company registered in a tax haven where most value returns.
– The results have been an unprecedented skewed wealth accumulation by few players at the helm of the global value chains. This accumulation is driven by two culprits – multinational corporations (MNCs) and shrewd tech companies. This article is about me being opinionated about the two because I have seen first hand where their continued behavior and the inactivity of our governments will leave our youth – Africa’s most abundant resource.

If our governments relinquished control to the MNCs and tech companies (most of whom we celebrate) does it mean they are our savior? Maybe they are the future of jobs and decent livelihoods. Evidence suggests that these are great vehicles of wealth accumulation not social good. Consider the facts with me:
First, when we officiated a marriage between technology and globalized economies we also disrupted how these companies create and deliver value; whom they would collaborate with and also whom they fear (competition). The discomfort and risks associated with this landscape have seen most companies adopting a survival mode.
To a large extent, a sizable number of MNCs and well to do national companies have jumped into a cost-cutting frenzy that continually becomes intoxicating. It is increasingly becoming a matter of survival for boards and C-suite execs to post better figures per quarter than to stand for something or mean something socially. Our business segment is now punctuated by news of blatant layoffs cosmetically packaged as necessary cost cutting or the more trendy one of ‘going lean’. – so what is my fuss all about? Going lean means a disrupted livelihood, sometimes long-term unemployment – it is a very disempowering encounter. This is why I tell our awesome UReadyAfrica students that blue chip companies no longer create jobs, unlike popular opinion.


I know what you are thinking, that some are truly justified and had no choice – true. However, the philosophy behind most layoffs lacks a human and social face. Let me emphasize this: There has never been a time when companies laid off so many people despite the fact that they were still profitable. Indeed, there has never been a time that we glorified quarter, mid or end of year results like today.

Secondly, I would like you to now consider the celebrated tech companies that led the disruption. Before their razor sharp PR campaigns and the appeals of their gadgets fool you ask yourself whether their business model is socially conscious. You will discover that most of these trendy tech celebrity companies are by no measure awesome job creators.They are machines of wealth creation for investors. Here are a few pointers:

a). Crazy valuations
Just imagine that Apple’s market value is bigger than all but 19 countries GDPs – note that most of the 19 countries either have oil, colonized someone or are extremely large. In fact, Saudi Arabia, world’s oil richest country is only $68 (the current valuation of Uber) billion richer than Apple. Which is fascinating since if Apple acquired Uber it would surpass oil fields and people of Saudi. Now think about how much jobs this company or its peers have created.

b). Growth without jobs.
If we leave Apple and look at its younger siblings such as Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Groupon you will be hit but equal crazy valuations that rise year to year. Sure, we were in awe of their growth – the story of Uber, Facebook, LinkedIn among others inspire us, they epitomize human ingenuity. Unfortunately, that is all, we do not see an upward spiral in job creation – they barely get an invitation to tag along. For decades it has been known that company expansion means job pool expansion until now.

c). Displacement and quality of jobs
I suspect that for every 10 jobs Uber, Facebook or Indian algorithms take they will mostly create fewer jobs of lower quality. They will also displace jobs from the base to another area. Uber, for instance, has led to joblessness of traditional taxi owners and drivers. While it appears great on efficiency and consumer experience the guys displaced were in taxi business for life i.e. unlike new Uber owners who are already middle-class folks trying to diversify and boost main revenue base, these guys may not survive the knocked out.

Now you want to scream at me, be gracious Ndirangu, be gracious. Okay…just so we are clear I too enjoy riding an Uber, the conveniences that technology affords us or advertising on Facebook. So this is not me making a case for inefficiency or status quo; this is me inviting us to see a bigger picture beyond that which fits in our frame as consumers. To acknowledge that there is a wider context here beyond efficiency. Indeed these tech companies can no longer play the non-conformist income being gagged by policy and traditional players. Some are not underdogs but bulldogs salivating at the idea of turning wild.

Of course, I do not intend to blame innovators I cannot bear the crime of stifling progress; but I intend to call out a business philosophy that is out of touch with the social realities of our time.  As for our governments, become more creative in policy; the layoffs we are witnessing are not a cyclical recession issue. Stop watching the cycle hoping it will pass, IT Won’t, read the bold writing on the wall – that this a new business model, an economic reality sustained by owners of capital. It will not pass! I have heard you though, that I need to be more gracious and positive that is why in the next article I will share my thoughts on how we can get into youths productive jobs despite this not so good news. At UReadyAfrica we want you to know that Africa has a solution within it.

Why Driving Schools are Better than Universities

emotionheaderNothing fascinates boys more than a machine, as a matter of fact, I think boys are half man half machine. Ask any parent how glorified a car is to a boy. I mean we could play games where one sounded like a Mitsubishi and the other one a Nissan; we would not let go off our cars (made of wires and bottle tops) even in our sleep. Sorry ladies, we were also were puzzled by your dedication to plaiting Ghanaian lines on some grassy hills. Like normal boys do, I could not wait to grow up, earn a degree, make money and finally buy a real car (in that, socially advocated for, order).

As nature would have it, the first two happened almost by themselves. What no one told me about was the gap between the degree and that real car – an amorphous ‘desire phase’ or ineffective demand. You see economics tell us that effective demand occurs at the intersection of willingness and ability to pay – you reckon the heart is rarely in a consultative mood with the pocket when it desires things. Point is, after my degree and in the desire phase, I enrolled into a driving school. Then, years later, my boyish love of cars and my engagement with graduates under The Bridge Africa- UReady Emploaybilty Program crystallized to produce one of the most important lessons that I believe every university should know. Yet it was so simple, and it came through as I reflected on my driving school experience.

That it was not about the car!

To make my case on what can be learned, I need to first state what is the gap in learning. The gap is that our universities, the country’s workforce preparation system seem unable to pass the skills necessary to function in the 21st-century workspace. I believe part of this gap relates to how our lecturers pass knowledge (although I have no intention of placing the entire graduate skill gap blame on academia’s doorstep, I sure intend to highlight part of their failure). So what can lecturers learn from sometimes dingy driving school that would make them better prepare our graduates for the job market?


1). Objective Definition

Who is a truly educated graduate? Is it one who has graduated having satisfied the hours per unit? I believe universities can learn better how to define the objective of being in a university. The most articulate part of my driving school experience was how clearly my objective was defined- the instructor said: “You are here to learn how to move a car safely from point A to B while obeying all the traffic rules of the land”. It is from this definition that every activity, exercise, and effort was framed. Similarly, a university must define the outcome of going through it – to quote Noam Chomsky, a truly educated person should be a graduate who can ‘objectively enquire, ask good questions; have the discipline to seek their answers and also prioritize on what is worth pursuing.’ This must be what we should produce on every graduation ceremony.

2). Signs on the Wall vs. on the Road
After objective – the lesson on road signs begun. It was natural for us to understand the language if we were ever expected to be guided by it. This was a question of memory, after all, we had our booklets though we looked at the road signs as if we have never walked by a roadside. But we did fine until the environment changed and I was no longer required to flip pages or point to a chart and shout ‘Give Way!, Men at Work! I was now supposed to not miss a sign while on the actual road driving (it was more complex that it sounds i.e. balance all those things with the legs, be steady on the steering, keep to my lane and main gosh!).

The university, like the signs on a chart we recited, is a controlled environment where the primary duty is to recall but life and work are the signs by the roadside. When we graduate, we have to not just know the sign, we have to see and obey them while driving, along busy lanes at night, day, misty, foggy or during dark nights. Unfortunately, our lecturers excel at signs on the wall – theories on rarely updated handouts which students start equating to excellence and capability at work. On the other hand, the driving school created an environment in which we soon realized that ‘To Know’ was necessary but NOT sufficient without the ‘To Do’ part. Our lecturers must ditch those handouts once we are good at reciting and push us to the deep end of doing – create an environment where to know does not become the goal and to be good at memory the dominant goal.

3). Same Skill different cars – transferability

My first three days on the road was with a Nissan saloon car. By the third day, I was getting comfortable with it when Gabriel (our instructor) introduced us to ‘the lorry’. Funny enough, the route was the same, but I have never been more nervous- I later realized that had the car not changed I was training to become ‘a driver of the saloon Nissan’ not a driver (of any car). Thankfully, by changing the training cars continually the sensitivity of my skill development to the type of car was disrupted before it formed. This is skill transferability at its best!

At UReady Africa we have noted that driving schools have remarkable skill transferability models, I mean you don’t hear drivers panicking that you have given them a different car from the ‘other one’. Unfortunately, this cannot be said to be true of many products of our institutions. A CEO once told me that most of our graduates never ‘leave school’ i.e. they never shake off the dependency notion wired during their academic life. After working on the ‘half-baked’ graduates issues I can safely speculate that when life presents a different model of working (like in my case a different car) and mostly a challenging one panic or immobility is almost always predictable in our graduates.

Our lecturers have the onerous task therefore of designing a learning experience that discourages dependency and incorporates discomfort – this is the middle name of the modern work environment, let our graduates learn it.

4). A good driver every morning

My last lesson came after completion and a couple of months driving. I realized that it does not matter how well I drove yesterday, I had to choose to be a good driver everyday if I truly want to move from ‘point A to B safely while obeying traffic rules’ every single time I was behind the wheel. University must equally speak to the character of the graduate we release. I was told plainly that if I ever let down my guard as a driver, I would die, maim or inconvenience myself and/or others. Our graduates must be taught the place values, character and mindset if they want to navigate lanes at work safely and profitably. At UReady Africa we are committed to deliver these employability skills in partnership with universities.

Bonus Lessons

Patience –be slow when learning

I remember one of my course mates panicked as we entered Forest Road and confused the fuel peddle for the brakes one. Being a well functioning car, it executed the command with diligence and shot forward thankfully instructors have a different pair of controls and he handled it. In graduate skills and work experience, there is a sense of hurry and an almost forgetfulness or confusion of fuel for brake peddles. We ought to wire patience in career entry but more fundamentally mentorship must be part of graduate preparation – they can keep their hands on control peddles to safely guide learning.

Validity of Credentials

Lastly, every day I must ensure my driver’s license is valid. Driving with an invalid license is likened to never having driven in some jurisdictions. The concept of validity of a credential here serves to remind the higher education that a degree is a signal of possession of a competency but that competency must be valid as appertains to the time, place and context of usage in the market. Sure, driving schools are not responsible for your driving behavior but they qualify you for a driving license in the category you qualified for. Similarly, universities must only pride themselves in what their graduates can actually do in the job market, not the certificate they conferred to them.

Creating your own Godfathers

Today, more than any other time in history, getting a job depends on whether you can access ‘hiring dens’ that take the form of exclusive invite only clubs. People hire people they know. With the economy producing lesser and lesser jobs, human nature will dictate that these hiring circles will grow thinner and thinner. However, majority of our youths still require jobs and do not have access to godfathers (the shareholders and proprietors of these hiring circles). This article attempts to empower those graduates craving to join these circles at least to overhear of a job opening somewhere. I am sharing my perspective of an age old skill that if revived could lead to cultivation of one’s own godfathers. I am talking about the ability to network objectively.


It is estimated that over 80% of all job opportunities are never advertised – this is called the informal job market: this tells us why the 20% of the formal job market opportunities we occasionally hear is almost always too competitive.

It is also a shame that sometimes it is not even a real opportunity but PR exercises of not so sensitive employers. Quick math; to get employed you may want to hunt the bigger 80% cake than be slaughtered trying the 20% cake. But how do you do that?

Simply put, the 80% is reserved for people with ‘godfathers’ -and who are they? Uncles and unties (fake or real) in the know of who and how. Could I be promoting the much frowned at practice of tribalism or nepotism by painting godfathers as desirable to have? Not at all! First, I have realized there are very logical reasons why people hire people they know such as the insufficiency of an interview length in knowing an applicant well enough. Being referred is usually an interview of some sort – a credential in itself. My second reason has to do with how I define a godfather. A ‘godfather effect’ is the value that accrues to you by virtual of association in a symbiotic relationship. In this state you allow people to use a resource you have while they reciprocate – only that godfathers have more resources such as specific knowledge, networks and experience that can land you a job.

Clearly then, you need a godfather – and to get them you need the requisite skill to build a network of people whose value to you produce a ‘godfather effect’. Again, how do you do that?


As a context, one must appreciate that in modern times of jobless recoveries hiring happens in whispers – difficult to eavesdrop and crafted using insiders’ pidgin. I compare a job seekers experience to that age old frustration in primary school when classmates passed meticulously folded notes past you, leaving you dead curious (sometimes envious of the insiders). They would later walk out in a huff; so excited while your self esteem was taking a dive. Am sure you recall almost begging ‘take me with you’ or if you were among the rude ones, making a nasty comment to them – point is you were still left out of the party. This experience can give us few pointers about networking for results:

Remember, hating on the group did not help, it simply ate you up at best. For those of us who felt the appeal of being part of the group was too high to miss out, we took the risk of being friendly. Rejection was as real as our envy but being left in class (sometimes alone) as others shared life was worse.

In equal measure, take the risk of approaching new people to join their networks. The risk of being left behind as others get career referrals is much bigger. Furthermore, most people are more civil than we give them credit for. I recommend a culture of approaching people.

Timing and isolation was key – you may have noticed that the perfect entry point to the group was never showing up as the team shared its intimate stories, but rather isolating a team member who seemed likable or who at least hadn’t laughed at you as hard as the others. Approaching the entire group would have been sneered off and rejection was guaranteed.

In equal measure I would be hesitant to call walking into a HRs office, introducing yourself and saying you want to learn about the company networking.  Because people guard their inner circle if you find the operating within it – it is wiser to attend outdoor events where corporate professionals attend. These are safe chatting zones to commence growing a symbiotic relationship.

Even nature goes to a great extent to discourage us from instant gratification- that is why it doesn’t rain rivers or shine at 100°C. We also learnt this in our class dynamics – even after admission to this group it was rare that every member liked you instantly neither were you to be part of all their secretes right away. You patiently warmed your way into their hearts mostly by having ‘sweet secretes’ to share; whenever we attempted to be recognized too soon the clause of ‘recent membership’ was invoked and we knew we were on a ledge.

Similarly, you must earn a right and trust to access the value of another man’s network. The only proven way is usually to show up with some value yourself. Start networking early enough especially when in school, learn what is to be learnt and nurture the relationship. Actively find out what value you can bring to the network; deliver what you promised and you will be ushered in progressively.

Speaking of value, remember that appearing needy does not endear you to anyone. It just makes you inimical to the ideal team member. If you ever begged to join the group, you were mostly written off immediately and even if a member had mercy on you, you joined the team under ‘irredeemable circumstances of inferiority’ – that is, you were always at the mercy of someone and quite frankly your ‘recent membership’ clause remained permanent.

‘Never appear to be needy, appear to be needed’

Nobody ever got the best out of someone from a pure appeal of mercy. I understand we shall seek networks of our seniors and superiors but never make an appeal of mercy – make an appeal of goodwill instead. At worst, appeal to someone’s benevolence because then you have a chance to rise to an equal.

Lastly, we must treat networks as a second certificate (it is an alternative credential) if we will succeed in this information age. To learn more of this skill and how it can add value to employment check out UReady – it is a post-employment graduate skill development we launched to equip recent graduates and university students with this networking skill among others.

Check out our course on ‘Networking – for those Without Godfathers’. Click on

The Unpopular Article (I) – the University

growth-mindset-the-winning-package_001You would be unfair to not acknowledge that the United States of America has weaved a neat story of admiration. I deeply admired this country (I still do), was fascinated by its people, its identity and its place in the global landscape. However, in 2008 two irreconcilable events took place and convincingly disarranged my neat, naïve and fond story. A campaign of one son of a Kenyan diplomatic (so fresh and new that the world involuntarily felt part of it or should I say part of him), and an economic meltdown so non viscous (its river almost flattened world economies and its tributaries defiled even periphery economies). We were perplexed, on one hand we screamed back YES WE CAN (mostly to our TVs) while on the other hand we asked ‘What does banks over there got to do with our rural SACCOs over here?’

You may know these two events as the Obama Effect and The 2008-09 Global Financial crisis; both of epic proportions and defiant in their own nature – one a triumph of audacious hope and the other a triumph of unrelenting human greed. Someone great was coming in but an even greater value (that of not preying on fellow humanity) had been lost (probably forever).

“I felt torn apart like a master of ceremony in an event of twins; on one hand leading a birthday bash while on the other eulogizing the death of the other twin all in the same room”

Eight years later, as Obama exits the White House, Kenya’s higher education  is in a crisis, and I am again torn apart – torn between celebrating the progress made in education attainment (specifically in higher education) or moaning the disdain with which we treat holders of this attainment. I say higher education because it is the most prominent pathway to a career that is seemingly unable to facilitate transition to work. Is the university to blame? If not, who pulled this heist on our children, made them run, celebrated them as they crossed the finish line and now look perplexed that they cannot find the promised trophy? I don’t know but today I will share my thoughts on the university as a key player in this. I believe the unfortunate events of the Global Financial crisis bear some semblance to the higher education crisis we are in.

To make my case indulge me in exploring what this Global Financial Crisis was all about. It is widely accepted that the bedrock of the financial crisis was mortgage lending. Imagine you want to own a home so you borrow from a bank in exchange of a paper called a mortgage; you promise to repay whoever holds that paper the amount plus interest. The bank loans more borrowers and then sells the mortgage papers to third parties called international investors.  These global investors have an insatiable appetite because the returns are high and they pressure banks to look for more borrowers like you (called Prime Borrowers).

Banks realize they will not find people like you who can meet their standards, so they relax their requirements, and people who should not qualify for loans (called Sub-prime borrowers) get mortgages and became your neighbors.  Soon your neighbors, in their hundreds, cannot afford to repay the mortgage and their houses are foreclosed. But all good borrowers like you have homes so no one is buying – since supply outstrips demand house prices decrease dramatically. Your house is now worth 30% of what you are paying and your neighborhood is ghost silent. You reckon it is foolish to pay for a worthless house and you default too by choice. Banks panic (they have worthless houses as security), global investors want their money, security exchanges collapse, banks go bankrupt, thousands are laid off, and the off we are in a global meltdown.


Having said that, you can agree that this article cannot be popular even to the writer because you only say some things if you must. I reckon that no one would like to be compared to such a crisis, but like it or not is is so easy to draw parallels with our higher education as it operates today. Let us try:

First, the only reason people borrowed was because credit was available and owning a house was necessary just like we are pumping students into universities because our parents can (though at pains) access SACCO loans or dispose a household’s fondly loved cow to see us through a semester. I make no attempt to argue that owning a home or having an education is not desirable, I am only pointing to similar cases in which the process of doing that is packaged deceptively and erroneously marketed. I am even more concerned at how delinked the cost, promise and yield of higher education is loosely assessed and thus less is demanded of its output. Lesson: Access should not be enough in justifying sign up!

Secondly, the global investors’ capital was too enticing for banks to resist; they decided to relax the lending requirements opening floodgates and taking leave of business ethics. Our universities in equal measure, specifically in East Africa have been on a deregulation spree marked by privatization and self-sponsored models. I am sure you note that banks made an ethical call, regulators were probably having faith in the markets while borrowers were counting their blessings one by one. One then wonders how commercial interest can be structured without diluting the quality of our higher education?

Of course, it is not illegal to have a class of 500 students who finish a course having never heard of the lecturer’s name – BUT is it right or moral?

It should not be lost on us that in the US estates you could no longer tell which house had belonged to a prime borrower and which one to a sub-prime borrower. Is it a wonder that we now have blanket skepticism of graduate skill quality where we dismissively call them ‘half-baked’? To be fair to employers, it is true they can barely spot an interesting application in a heap of a thousand resumes – is this not a situation where we treat all graduates like sub-prime borrowers i.e. SUB-PRIME GRADUATES? Notably though, banks could have offered other instruments for the less able borrowers. So while I champion better education attainment I encourage us to appreciate that this may not be the most appropriate strategy to educate all youths. We should ask louder – education for what purpose?

In addition to universities, there are governments, businesses and individual consumers on this issue too whose roles I will explore in subsequent articles.  As I conclude I must confess it is not easy to compare esteemed institutions to histories dark chapters, that is not to say that silence was an option either. But as I did this article, I was not hoping to end with a ruling on who is more wrong but rather to spark a conversation about who can and should do more about this. What lifts my spirit is my intentions, that I am not anti-university, or anti-deregulation I am simply anti-the status quo. That is why I started The Bridge Africa to be a multi-sector graduate skill partnership of players in workforce development to address this. I know Americans could still have owned homes in better structured and ethical process – I believe even more that if the university assisted us in rethinking how it will invest the talent of the future prosperity will be ours to find. We must not lose our ability to keep the promise of the returns of higher education to the African child.

I Peeped into the Delivery Room


Over five years of my sister’s nursing career I was yet to understand her love and fascination with the maternity department. It is until recently that I took deeper interest in her work by curiously inquiring on what really happens in this department that most of us stopped by on our way to this place.

Of the many lessons, one was of immense significance- that babies are born HEAD FIRST! Now this may seem obvious, but this biological process reflects a larger principle in life – the head represents focus, ideas, businesses or careers – it comes first and how it is handled determines everything. To emphasize, ask any medic what happens if any other body part shows up first during delivery. I asked this to my sister – her face changed, she said with a lower voice that “then you know the mother has ‘complicated’” – she then went into a brief trance like one forced to watch a sequence of graphic images. Continue reading “I Peeped into the Delivery Room”

4 Question we aren’t asking as often


The news of Barclays Bank’s exit from major African markets came as news to some, to some it was a question of when. Some of us knew it as a premier brand only comparable to its HD logos on the Premier League they sponsor. One may analogize that pretty much like the sport they sponsor, which am told can get messy, it has gotten messy for Barclays too. I am no expert on football but I recall trying to watch these Barclays branded matches in an overcrowded room hoping to learn a thing or two about football: well, I learnt that once you miss a front seat you have to stand, sometime on your toes (like one on imaginary heels) and also depend on the sentimental shouts of those with a better view.

Nokia, Kodak and to some extent Barclays Africa can tell you that it is not funny when your are on your toes, trying to catch a glimpse of the game, competitors break into jubilation and you cannot tell who scored who or what. Its a confusion comparable to an undergrad’s first class in calculus. The noise of future corporate, political or social game is rising, the rooms are more crowded and being in the game is tougher. This is where leadership comes in, remember that when things go south we train our lenses on leaders; we did not care as much that Symbian OS was not as good as Android in the Nokia case, it is what the leadership missed.

So what how do you prepare for future leadership in such a situation? Do you get caught up in awe of the few exceptional ones and hope to run into future Zuckerbergs or Jeff Bezos who we will impulse buy before our competitors? I think it is only through committing to a process of answering key questions defining future leaders. Bellow are 4 important ones that will show up in different forms.

What has shifted?

Nick Petrie refers to as shifting from horizontal leadership development, which is expert centered, to vertical leadership development. This shift will focus on individual within an organization and tap into the cultural, ethical, belief and personality aspects that build uniqueness. This is because future leadership will no longer depend on transfer of skills and knowledge from an expert to the lower ends; it must be motivated by inner values other than profit gains. Consequently future leaders must define profits and success at a personal level.

Where is the Center (is it needed)?

Future leadership will shift the responsibility of development, change and task completion to an individual at different points of the organization; leadership will have to depart from a power-centered organizational technologist (transactional leadership) to a community-based organizational philosopher (transformational leadership) who elevates organizational motivation beyond self interests and completion of task. Mc. Evoy in his study on future leadership intimated that this leadership will offer sustainable results by making performance and standards personal; for instance an internal control system may prevent theft, but a value-based institution that espouses personal values of integrity offers sustainable checks on theft.

Vertical or Horizontal?

Future leadership will be collective not individual; it will not be a personal role anymore but a systems leadership based on interdependent professionalism. It will extend beyond the institutional scope towards maximization of influence across the entire value system. This will require vertical approach in decision making and policy, as well as horizontal approach in exerting positive influence. Thus, future leadership will be bent on an inclusive trend where leadership is about systems thinking that enables superior quality of decisions; this will result from mediation of skills that enhance sharing of knowledge and increases ability to identify paradigms that drive change.

How do we decide?

Future leadership will focus on innovation through combination of diverse ideas in creative ways. Technology, research and development and adopting change will feature conspicuously. To arrive at appropriate decision in a complex environment, leaders will have to come up with various methods such as simulation of work contexts to assess how different components affect other factors. However, in the innovation aspect, a leader will have to be rich in the ability to create a meaningful context from the existing situations of sustainability. Purt Jenny noted on The Guardian that innovation in future leadership will have to depart from the traditional and offer social responsive, context appropriate, sustainable and meaningful future possibilities.

Refuse to be substituted before your time. To lead the future and play to the end requires an ability to flip dilemmas into opportunities; meeting volatility with vision; complexity with certainty of direction; uncertainty with understanding and ambiguity with agility.

A Template of Excellence – Can We Replicate Harvard?


Greatness is notoriously slippery, sometimes numbingly cold. Yet it has courted others religiously, tagged them as objects of applause. Some claim that it can be aided by placing oneself at the gates of luck which may be what my parents meant by ‘education is the key to life’. One rarely attains greatness, at least in many cultures, without fumbling with different keys at the gates of education. We can safely assume that the gate matters just as much as the key, especially in today’s higher education crisis, where students and parents feel like a chess board on  universities expansion games.

What a better moment for us to interrogate why some universities like Harvard in the face of disruption still mean more than the credentials obtained from them. Yes, the world is not short of universities that dominate ranking tables but I picked Harvard University as a benchmark for two reasons: its firm grip as a model template of excellence and the clarity of historical decisions preceding its ascent to greatness.

Harvard’s Sacred Seat

But first, what places one university on top of another? Ranking tables such as QS World University Rankings would be a good place to start. It is estimated that research citations, academic reputation and staff-student ratios account for 80% of ranking decisions. Times Higher Education rankings add income per researcher, ratios of international staff and international researchers to the list. I admit that ranking challenges exist but I hold no objection to the significance and the attention they receive from stakeholders. Therefore, rankings are telling of an excellent university and, irrespective of the ranking source, Harvard maintains an almost sacred seat in the top 5 table.

Founded in 1636 Harvard was hardly the best. Harvard professor, Clayton Christensen argues that it is from 1870-1950s that the features of excellence took root. He credits three of its presidents, Charles Eliot, Lawrence Lowell, and James Conant for the re-engineering. Their decisions give us what I will refer to as the characteristics of a great institution of learning:

They improve on models that work: Beginning 1870S President Charles Elliot improved on the designs of the then existing European Universities. He established the Graduate schools that conferred PhDs and ensured you needed a bachelor’s to get in. He opened the flood gates of course specialization by creating an elective system. Later, Lawrence Lowell , Eliot’s successor introduced majors, the honors and a grading system

They pay to attract and keep the best: Elliot financed his expansion through fundraising and not fees increase and he willfully paid a football coach a near equivalent of his 40-years earnings at Harvard. In 1933 James Conant took over, his major concern being Harvard’s intellectual repute. He separated Harvard from others by assembling a faculty composed of leading thinkers in their respective fields. He tied tenure to productivity. He also set up a fund to cater for the financially challenged students but intellectually privileged.

They step into the world of practice: the three presidents were actively involved in public work. Conant had a lead role at the WWII Manhattan Project and leveraged on this to secure government financing. This contact with world of practice maintains a referral system which is still important in joining Harvard. Continue reading “A Template of Excellence – Can We Replicate Harvard?”

Don’t Fight a Starving Animal


Never contend with a man who has nothing to Lose; for thereby you enter into an unequal conflict. The other enters without anxiety; having lost everything, including shame, he has no further loss to fear. He therefore re-sorts to all kinds of insolence. (Baltasar Gracián)

The Roman Catholic rector inked these words over 300 years ago. Going over them today, it is natural to imagine images of a safari gone bad and the eventual man-beast cat fight; I am however concerned with our ability to extract contemporary meaning from this wisdom packaged in historical wrappings.

To me they are a reminder that the African youths are starving in untold disgrace. This is not difficult to tell at all when our youths are less likely to be employed than our parents; when they are gambling their dignity away in slums and casinos. Despite being Africa’s biggest asset, a majority of us have chosen to give policy attention to the below market value oil discoveries or our occasionally good physical infrastructure. Yet while these assets are important, they are truly useful in the context of the generation for whom they are sought especially the over 200 million youths aged between 12-24 years in Africa.

Strength of the Bench

Our youths are the strength of the bench upon which we sit. They buy more Coca Cola that our parents buy milk; PnG and Unilever balance sheet is really a reflection of the youth preferences; when MTN and Safaricom think of growing data revenues they think youth. If they drive consumption then improving their purchasing power does well to us all. A World Bank report titled “Youth in Africa’s Labor Market” notes that reducing the difficulties youths face as they enter the work force and developing the skills needed to ensure gainful and productive employment can have profound effects on a country’s’ investment climate and prospects for growth.

An educated and healthy work force provides incentives for investment; unskilled and disillusioned youth make returns to investment low and uncertain. Supporting the youth transition from school to work is our best shot of enjoying the demographic dividend i.e. the benefit of having a larger working-age population than the dependent one that was enjoyed by East Asian countries. It can also be said of us, that we enjoyed an economic miracle because we treated our youth right.

How then can one account for the discordance between this knowledge and our actions? The answer may seem to lie quite on the surface: – OUR ATTITUDE towards the youth. We haven’t limited our starving them to our weak policy decisions, skewed rationale in hiring or even our half-hearted commitment to their well being; we have famished them with our condescending attitudes. We casually declare them lazy; say they need to work just a little bit harder; we push them to edges of immunity to shame, loss or anxiety.

I applaud, and celebrate true believers of the African youth, the corporate, individuals and governments. I call upon even more to realize that we are not a deadweight loss; a vexatious necessity that you have to attend to. Do not mortgage our future; give us more than cosmetic commitments; develop us from mere effective consumers to effective producers.

Why we will not win

Yes, I am aware that comparing our youth to a starved animal could be considered alarmist, but lining up for an eventual bite is not so smart either, or is it?

See, we did not cease treating women as less than men because of a guilt wave; we realized (though late) that we will never obtain and sustain success when half of our population was excluded from productive engagement. Continuous exclusion of our youth as a matter of policy or acceptable social norms gets us into an unequal contest littered with casualties and no winner; the kind to be avoided.



Simon NDIRANGU MWANGI (MS) is the Founder and CEO of TheBridgeAfrica – an enterprise that works with graduates, universities, employers and professional societies to achieve market ready status. Continue reading “Don’t Fight a Starving Animal”