When studying and graduating seem like a waste of time…

Blouses, trousers, shoes and dresses are what fill up most of Juliet Anyango’s WhatsApp status and Instagram pages as she tries to earn a living from selling second-hand clothes online.

In 2016, Anyango graduated from the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT) with a degree (second class) in industrial biotechnology. Now, four years down the line, she is yet to ‘reap from what she has sown’.

Was studying biotechnology at university a waste of time for Anyango?

Over time, there has been growing concern among biotechnology students in Kenya over the lack of job opportunities in the field, and this has left many of them wondering whether the course was worth their time.

Many, like Anyango, delved into unrelated careers that can keep them going as they wait for opportunities in their study field. But for how long will they have to wait?

Job market has no room for graduates

Despite the high grades required for admission, the high tuition cost and the complex training that biotechnology students undergo at university, the Kenyan job market does not seem to have any more room for the thousands of graduates churned out each year.

“It took me four long years, more than US$5,000 in tuition fees and accommodation and strenuous hours of lectures and exams for me to finally complete the course and graduate,” Anyango told University World News.

“The sad part is that I had friends who had done the same course ahead of me and were struggling to get jobs, but nothing could stop me from applying for the same – maybe they were just unlucky, I told myself.

“In a class of 60 students, only two of us were fortunate enough to land work,” Anyango said, adding that she wished someone had advised her against taking the course.

She has “lost count” of the number of application letters she has mailed or personally presented to potential employers, “none of which has ever been replied to”.

She joins Kenya’s large number of graduates who have been left jobless and forced to find other means of survival.

Industry-university mismatch

Biotechnology involves using living systems or organisms to make various products. Medical biotechnology, for instance, utilises genetic engineering to develop drugs and other therapeutic proteins.

JKUAT is considered to be one of the best universities for students looking to join the field of science and technology in East Africa.

A course in biotechnology requires a student to have a minimum grade of C+ at JKUAT.

Other leading institutions that offer the same course in Kenya include Kenyatta University, the University of Nairobi and Moi University. Each year, thousands of biotechnology students graduate in the hope of finding work in their fields.

Some government research institutions do offer opportunities for biotechnology graduates. These include: Kenya Agricultural Research Institute, Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute, Kenya Forestry Research Institute, Kenya Industrial Research and Development Institute, Kenya Institute for Public Policy Research and Analysis, and the Kenya Sugar Research Foundation, part of the Kenyan Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation.

Dr Kevin Mbogo, a lecturer in the biotechnology department at JKUAT, told University World News that universities have the capability and resources to train their students in the field, but that the limited number of research institutes have failed to offer students more opportunities.

“The problem is with the current state of employment in the country,” said Mbogo. “JKUAT has the capacity to produce competent professionals in the field, but there aren’t enough research institutions to absorb them. There is also a lack of linkages between universities and industries, which I believe is very important.”

JKUAT is one of the few higher education institutions in Kenya that also doubles as a research centre for the government when needed. However, only post-graduate students are allowed to work as researchers at the institution.

The University of Nairobi and Kenyatta University also assist the government with research work when needed.

“JKUAT has all the research facilities required in the field of biotechnology,” Mbogo told University World News. “We do a lot of work on cloning, tissue culture and genetic engineering, among many other forms of gene manipulation.”

Saada Mangi, a biotechnology student currently in her third year at JKUAT, says she is already worried about her future once she graduates.

“I wanted to study medicine but missed the cut-off mark by one point. Since I opted for the Joint Admission Board (JAB) sponsorship, I was forced to accept the course that it had selected for me,” Mangi told University World News.

JAB is a government body mandated to grant university sponsorships to all high school graduates who have achieved a certain grade (currently B plain) in their Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education exams.

Misconceptions and lack of capacity

A decline in job opportunities in biotechnology has seen students such as Mangi opt for other courses.

“I know five people who graduated two years ago in the field of biotechnology, but haven’t even managed to land an internship,” added Mangi.

“I intend to go for a nursing diploma once I graduate. At least, with that, I might have a chance at landing a job.”

In addressing higher education institutions, Professor Hamadi Boga, principal secretary at the state department for crop development and agricultural research, said most of the problems being experienced in the food and medical industries can be solved through biotechnology.

However, global misconceptions and inadequate capacity in the research institutes in the country have caused several hindrances, especially for graduates looking for work.

The application of biotechnology in food production has been the subject of much criticism from activists worldwide, especially GMO (genetically modified organisms) technology, which, they say, has a negative impact on human health.

Some activists have gone as far as demanding a total ban on GMO production.

Boga encouraged biotechnology graduates to consider furthering their studies up to doctorate levels so that they could compete internationally and even land jobs outside the country.

“Rather than stick to a degree alone, I want to encourage these graduates to consider going for a masters, then a doctorate, so that they are able to get opportunities elsewhere that are not locally available,” he said.