From the field: Affordability shaping Kenyan outbound trends

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • We continue our “From the Field” interview series today in conversation with Amin Esmail, chief executive of the Nairobi-based education agency Univserv
  • In a wide-ranging discussion, Mr Esmail explains some of the factors that are shaping demand for study abroad in Kenya, including an interest in more affordable destinations and the much improved availability of information on study abroad for Kenyan students

Kenya is one of those markets that is sometimes hard to see clearly. The official stats from UNESCO suggest that outbound mobility has been essentially flat over the past decade. But the fundamentals for this emerging East African market are notably strong. It is home to one of the strongest economies on the continent, and also a booming, youthful population that is projected to exceed 80 million people by 2050.

Part of the answer to this apparent contradiction may lie in patterns of income distribution and income growth in Kenya, and in particular that income levels are relatively low overall. A recent Pew Research report points out that only 5% of Kenyans are within a middle-income bracket, as compared to 13% globally. The same report estimates that slightly more than nine in ten Kenyans are in a low-income bracket or living in poverty.

This may be due in part to the fact that much of the country’s economy is grounded in resource and agricultural industries, and with a significant proportion of informal employment. In contrast, middle-class, middle-income earners tend to be concentrated in Kenya’s service industries (e.g., finance, insurance) and in the main urban centres of Nairobi and Mombasa.

Another factor in the curiously flat trajectory of Kenya’s outbound stats is that, in addition to the student movement tracked by UNESO, there are large numbers of students studying outside of the country in neighbouring East African states, particularly Uganda. This intra-regional mobility has never been well-tracked, and is fuelled in part by Kenyans’ interest in more affordable study destinations.

The question of affordability was front and centre in a recent discussion that we had with Amin Esmail. Mr Esmail is the chief executive of Uniserv, a long-established education agency based in Nairobi. As he explains in our first interview segment below, outbound student numbers are almost certainly undercounted and especially where more affordable destinations are concerned.

But Mr Esmail also sees a longer-term trend to further growth in the market. “Traditionally, students have not had the same information available to them that they have today,” he points out. “More and more students are looking around, seeing opportunities, and, to a great number, getting pleasant surprises that when we look around the world that there are opportunities [to study overseas] but only that we were unaware of them.”

In our second interview segment below, Mr Esmail highlights that the US remains a leading destination for Kenyan students. He notes as well though that India is a major destination in its own right, and one where outbound numbers tend to be greatly understated.

The overall picture, however, is one of shifting patterns of demand and destination preferences for Kenyan students as students and families become more and aware of the different study options available to them. “Canada has picked up momentum tremendously,” he says, citing one such shift in student preference. “This has to do partly with the cost of their education…and that it is more student friendly than many countries.”

On the question of how to approach recruiting in Kenya, Mr Esmail’s advice is simple: “It is important to have your presence there,” he says. “To visit regularly, and there are always local exhibitions where recruiters are invited and that is one of the opportunities to come and meet students. This is an investment but one that is rewarded by both the quality and quantity of students that you can get from East Africa.”

For additional background, please see:



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