Jobs for the boys (and girls)?

Published on 4 September 2020

The promise of plentiful jobs for locals is often made when companies describe their plans for industrial or infrastructure development on the lands of marginalized and indigenous peoples.

The same promise is invariably flagged up in environmental and social impact reports that describe in glowing terms the future benefits of such ‘development’ projects, in Africa and other parts of the world.

But hopes are soon dashed when those ‘jobs’ turn out to be unskilled, short-term, insecure and low paid. The only work on offer is for cleaners, security guards, tea makers and the like – while locals are irked to see the best jobs go to ‘outsiders’.

That’s exactly what has happened at Olkaria, Nakuru County, where our research on the impacts of geothermal industry on communities found that the majority of local residents felt left behind, with few hopes of finding permanent employment with the geothermal companies and their sub-contractors. (KenGen is the main company here.) Young people and women told us they are particularly hard hit.

Here is a flavour of what our informants had to say.


It was striking – and tragic – that four out of eight young Maasai men who took part in a focus group discussion (FGD) at the village of Olomayiana Kubwa were unemployed.[1] Two worked as security guards at geothermal plants, one was a self-employed tour guide at the nearby Ol Njorowa Gorge (though he too classed himself as jobless), and one was a pastoralist.

Yet it’s not that they lack skills, some schooling,[2] and bags of enthusiasm.

‘Some of the youth here are learned [i.e. been to school] and capable of doing some other [kind of] jobs with KenGen. But the company has not given out a single chance for jobs,’ said 30-year-old Samuel, a pastoralist. ‘Yet we have youth who are learned, energetic.’

We asked the group how they felt about this.

‘Frustration, and that the community is being neglected. You are told you are getting jobs, [but] the only jobs they are offering are security guards,’ said Edward, 21, himself a security guard. ‘There is discrimination. KenGen don’t recognise even the learned Maasai at all.’

25-year-old Michael, unemployed, added: ‘I see as if we are side-lined by the company because they only offer jobs for illiterate people; that is, security. We see people from other places [i.e. Kenyans from other parts of the country] working as permanent employees.’

We asked, what kind of work would you like to do in an ideal world?

Most of the group said they would like permanent jobs with KenGen – in the drilling sector, the environment department or doing office-based work. One young man said he would like to be employed as a driver.

Many young informants said they would welcome college scholarships, or technical training, to help them get good jobs. Some of the companies, such as Akiira Geothermal Ltd., do offer limited youth training opportunities.


Florence Tankaro is the 39-year-old women’s representative for Olomayiana Kubwa. A mother of seven, she represents 280 women who bring many problems to her door – mostly concerning jobs. ‘Every day, every hour, women come to me … asking me to get them jobs, and these jobs are not available, there are very few vacancies.’ This produces conflict, because some women don’t believe she is working hard enough to find them work.

What kind of jobs are available for women at the geothermal companies?

‘There are various jobs I can get women, like daytime security guards with the security companies engaged by KenGen. Also cleaning services, also people who make tea in KenGen offices, or other casual work; for example in the tree nurseries, women can work there watering. But these jobs are few and we women’s reps compete for few vacancies, and men take away from women leaders and give to their subjects [i.e. those who elected them as village chairmen].’

A number of local women work near the Gorge, at a daily market where they sell beadwork and curios to tourists, both domestic and foreign. (This trade will be killed off with the arrival in Kenya of COVID-19.) All are from RAPland, the village where KenGen resettled people in 2014 to make way for the Olkaria IV plant. Women from other villages, who told us they would love the opportunity to sell home-made beadwork there, complained that they are excluded from this market by the RAPland women.

For the beadwork sellers, the move to RAPland from their former village near the Gorge means they now have to travel a long way to work. ‘The transport fee is very expensive to reach the cultural market, health services and shops – around 400 Kenya shillings each day,’ said 42-year-old Lydia. There is no public transport in RAPland, so they are forced to take expensive matatus (shared taxis) or motorbike taxis. Lydia herself is lucky enough to have another part-time job, working for the Narok County government.

Some of the most marginal women are squatters, who can only scrape a living from illegal trades like charcoal burning. Esther (42) is one of them, a Samburu widow and mother of six forced to squat with relatives in RAPland because she failed to get a new house when these were allocated. She was not the only person to complain loudly about nepotism: village chairmen often arrange for jobs to be given to their relatives. She also identified another key issue: ‘The very low education level in the community is a great disadvantage, especially in meetings where English language dominates as the medium of deliberations.’ It also gives geothermal companies the excuse to employ workers from other ethnic groups, who have higher educational attainment and qualifications than many locals.

Esther is very distressed about one son’s chances. ‘My first-born passed his secondary school final exams very well, [so] he is now raw material for university admission. This pleased me at first. [It] stressed me later to infinity since I do not have money to pay for his university fees.’

  • Youth unemployment in Kenya as a whole is about 35%, compared to the overall national unemployment rate of 10%. 80% of unemployed Kenyans are under 35.

  • KenGen currently employs 80 Maasai out of a total workforce of 2000, including casuals (information supplied to researcher Daniel Rogei).

[1] FGD held at Olomayiana Kubwa village, Ol Karia, on 15 June 2018. Hosted by Ken Siloma, who also assisted and translated for Lotte Hughes.

[2] In this population, many younger people have only had primary schooling. Few get beyond secondary level, often because of poverty.

The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IDS.

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