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CITY GIRL: Grab unpaid internship break and run with it

I started my career nearly 10 years ago with an internship. I was 20 years old.

The first three months, I was paid Sh5,000. After the three-month internship, while other interns returned to school, I asked to remain. The gracious bosses, to whom I am forever thankful, allowed me to stay.

For the next seven months I worked as an unpaid intern. I showed up to work daily without fail to be sent out on assignments — most of which never got published anyway.

Still, I trudged on. In the eighth month of working for free an opportunity arose and for the first time in my life I earned a proper salary.


This week, a fiery debate ensued on social media. Mr Sam Gichuru, the founder and CEO of Nailab — a Kenyan start-up incubator — wrote a series of social media posts imploring young people not to overlook unpaid internships.

Mr Gichuru, who is currently managing a Sh1 billion funding programme for African entrepreneurs financed by Chinese billionaire Jack Ma, encouraged young people to do whatever it takes to survive an unpaid internship, including M-Shwari loans and selling mandazis as a side hustle. He gave an example of a young man he offered an unpaid internship and is now running a successful start-up.

Of course, his arguments divided opinion and attracted support and opprobrium in equal measure. The winning side, it seemed, was that of #PayInterns, and it was with good reason, interns are human beings with needs and bills to be paid.

But today’s article is not about whether we should pay interns or not. To me, the answer is quite obvious. Organisations must pay interns because interns play their role — no matter how small.


This piece is directed at the interns and young people entering the job market. Let’s talk reality.

Dear young people, the reality is, most organisations do not pay interns.

When they pay, the pay is so poor that it can hardly sustain you. Organisations do not need interns and most can do without them.

The other reality is that you need these organisations more than they need you.

Unpaid internships are inevitable, most of us have been there and done that, felt used and overlooked, but we managed. The other truth we must realise, particularly the people of my generation — the millennials — is that nobody owes us anything.

The world does not owe you an internship, a job or even a promotion. You’ll hate to hear this but the truth is, acting like a bunch of entitled princelings just because our parents raised us hammering the big lie that we are “special” giving us pet names like “ka-mum” and “kababa”, does us more harm than good.


In the real world, you will soon realise you are not special, you are not as smart as you think and, most of all, nobody really cares about your “impact” in an organisation.

Should you quit your job today and dramatically storm out, you will not be missed and the organisation will certainly not collapse because you left.

So, unless your father is a tenderprenuer, you will have to get your hands dirty like the rest of us. You will take that unpaid internship and figure out how to survive because you need that experience.

Many would even argue that interns should pay organisations. It is not arrogance, it is the world order, that is how capitalism works — it rides on cheap labour and unless your father is one of the capital owners, you will have to work for free.

Worse still is that when you finally get that job, you will not be started off on a salary of Sh300,000 with a driver and a bodyguard to boot.


You will be underpaid and overworked. You will realise that a side hustle is a necessary survival tool. In Kenya especially, things are so tough, even our President sells milk as a side hustle.

You will also experience untold unfairness and cut-throat politics that has the potential to break you. But you will survive because that’s what an unpaid internship taught me; survival.

It builds your resilience and teaches you how to do more with less. You enter an unpaid internship as a cushioned snowflake and leave a warrior and fighter.

So, dear youth, when you are staring at an unpaid internship, don’t be silly, grab that opportunity and milk it for whatever it is worth. And when you finally become an employer, please pay your interns!