Kenya's Youth Take Charge: The Million-Strong Yes Youth Can Movement Pushes for Peace, Democracy and Job Creation

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Elections free of violence--this seemed out of reach to many Kenyans in 2008. The losing parties in that year's elections instigated gangs of unemployed youth to go on looting and assaulting sprees, killing 1,500 Kenyans and displacing thousands more. But in March 2013, another election took place, this time with near-total peace. Activists in Kenya and outside it credit many factors for the turnaround, but one organization, a young people's movement called Yes Youth Can, receives particular praise.

Yes Youth Can was co-founded in 2008 by Kenyan volunteers working under the aegis of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the international development organization Mercy Corps. The group brings Kenyan teens and young adults together into village-level "bunges"--youth councils--that discourage violence, encourage civic activism, and provide young people with training and resources to start new businesses and. nonprofits. Now in its fifth year, the organization boasts a membership of nearly one million youth, with 20,000 registered bunges throughout 25 counties.

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Its size alone is noteworthy. No single-country youth program that USAID ever started has matched it. Yes Youth Can has another claim to fame, however: The organization is now led entirely by youth. Once USAID and Mercy Corps got Yes Youth Can off the ground, they handed over ownership and management completely to the young Kenyans. The youth now run the movement themselves through an overarching governance structure, the National Youth Bunge Association, to which all of the bunges belong.

"The U.S. government came up with the program, and then the young people took it up. And now they have their own structures and are setting it up on their own," says Duncan Ogaro Mikae, the National Youth Bunge Association's national organizing secretary.

Every bunge elects its own members, and the members spearhead community-building ventures within their own communities. Collectively, all the bunges elect the members of county-level bunges and a supreme national bunge body.

The local bunges have founded job-training centers and raised and dispersed microcredit funds for young people to start new projects, such as greenhouses, brick production, and farm cooperatives. They couple these funds disbursements, which range from $100 to $500 apiece, with classes in financial and business management.

"What we're doing differently [from other youth-centered programs] is we're giving youth a platform to come up with their own objectives, with their own platforms for addressing the challenges that their village faces," says Mikae.

A USAID grant provided the start-up capital for the bunges' ventures. Since then, however, many bunges founded their own Village Savings and Loan Associations (VSLAs), by which they could create their own continuous funding streams. Mercy Corps is now working with county youth boards--the county-level bunges--to organize youth-owned and youth-managed Savings and Credit Cooperatives to keep revenues flowing at the regional levels. Mercy Corps and the bunges look forward to deriving their first capital from these new cooperatives later this year, according to Rebecca Wolfe, a Mercy Corps senior youth and peace-building advisor who worked closely on Yes Youth Can.

"We designed the program with an eye to creating a 'tipping point' or a larger social movement. We wanted young people in other parts of the country to see what's possible, and start doing it themselves," says Wolfe.

James Makini Makini credits much of his own career success to Yes Youth Can. Right after graduating from the University of Nairobi with a bachelor's degree in commerce, he enrolled in Yes Youth Can--sponsored training courses in financial reporting and regulations. These courses gave him practical know-how that, he says, made it much easier for him to subsequently co-found the Innovation Empowerment Programme, a nonprofit that trains young people to start businesses and then offers them microloans. …