High on tea: The heavy cost of experience

What you need to know:

  • While internships are a great opportunity for fresh graduates or soon-to-be graduates to gain the elusive and much needed work experience, and to bridge the knowledge gap between theory and practical skills, the complexities surrounding pay for interns has bred a class of angry, frustrated and demoralised young professionals.
  • Corporates that underpay or refuse to pay interns have also been at the receiving end of sharp criticism recently, with many condemning them for taking advantage of the desperate young lads, and profiting from free labour.

Is an intern’s stipend too much to ask? Are internships meant only for those who can afford to cater for their own transport and lunch? Put two or three interns together and these two questions are bound to come up. 

While internships are a great opportunity for fresh graduates or soon-to-be graduates to gain the elusive and much needed work experience, and to bridge the knowledge gap between theory and practical skills, the complexities surrounding pay for interns has bred a class of angry, frustrated and demoralised young professionals. 

Corporates that underpay or refuse to pay interns have also been at the receiving end of sharp criticism recently, with many condemning them for taking advantage of the desperate young lads, and profiting from free labour.

Despite all this, unpaid internships still exist, and there are no indications that this will soon change. MyNetwork sounded out five former and one current intern to unpack this issue. 

Ann Maina, 21
Human Resources intern at a government parastatal

I feel like a zombie every time I report to work. I sit at my desk, waiting to be ordered around by the senior employees. They give me trivial tasks that are totally unrelated to my field of study or my expectations. One of the departmental heads usually sends me to buy him Uji Power (porridge blend) every afternoon. I didn’t know this was what I signed up for.

I joined the parastatal two months ago. The internship is a key component of my school work and I have an internal supervisor who appears unbothered by my progress. The only contribution he has ever made was when he gave me an excel sheet to work on, which took me ages to complete. He is always breathing down my neck as if I am an employee yet I am just intern looking to learn. The supervisor monitors my every move and insists that I should not use my phone at work. I usually wonder how my phone use affects my productivity yet the only work I do is run errands such as fetching coffee for fellow employees. The instances when I get assigned tasks that can help me learn and gain the industrial experience I need are very few.

Being a government parastatal, I was looking forward to a stipend to help with travel costs and even lunch, but so far, the only payment I have received is the never ending supply of hot water from the office dispenser which I use to make strong tea every lunch time. Perhaps I should also consider the frequent reprimands as part of my payment.

I have not been able to get an opportunity to shadow the more experienced colleagues to learn what a human resources officer in such a big entity does. I am at the tail end of my internship and I feel I haven’t learnt much. My supervisor has begun making inappropriate advances at me so that he can write a good recommendation letter for me once I am done. For me it has been a frustrating three months of internship.

Juliana Wambua, 23 
Graduate of accounting and finance 

I know people resign from jobs and not from internships, but I did it. I quit my internship after it was extended for three months. It was a paid internship, but the payment was in kind – profuse thank you’s and copious amounts of water. Not even tea was offered. I had only requested for a little money to cater for my fare to and from the office, but they rebuked me for asking for pay yet I was an intern.

I was an intern in the finance department of a blue-chip company in Nairobi for three months, which I dutifully attended. When the period elapsed, the contract was extended for another 12 weeks which I promptly turned down because I couldn’t continue to report for work without provision of transport. I raised the issue with the management and they promised to look into it, but they never did. 

I was done with university in April this year and while awaiting graduation in December, I took it upon myself to look for internship that would jumpstart my career. I never expected them to pay me. I had skills and I wanted to put them to practise and gain the much needed work experience.

The first three months were phenomenal. I got a chance to hone my skills and while the additional three months would have helped me gather more experience, I had to leave. 

When you speak out about the challenges you face as an intern, most times, the company won’t take you seriously. That can really affect your self-esteem and interest in the job. I was only asking for fare of Sh200 daily. I had no other commitments, so I would have given the job undivided attention, but they couldn’t even provide transport.

I had been used to eating air burgers (skipping meals) for lunch while on the internship and my body considered the midday meal a great luxury. 

That said, I am grateful that I had a chance to gain hands-on experience during my internship, to add to the theoretical work I had done in campus.

Photo credit: Pool

Ramona Njeri
Former intern at a local media house 

I left my internship position at a media house in January after putting up with meagre pay for months. At our work place, interns and most junior workers were being giving pocket money of Sh250 per day. The pay was not regular. Only the top guns were assured of pay come end month. I was offered a job contract while on internship and I stayed on for four extra months, but I never tasted the full fruits of my labour as my salary seldom came at the end of the month.

My experience was bittersweet. I got exposure and experience, yes, and I got to learn how a community broadcasting station works, formed networks and expanded my social capital.

But, I was being overworked since most senior employees would delegate their tasks to me. To survive, I had to rely on my parents. 

After realising that we were demoralised and looking to leave, the company began offering us tea and bread. They even went ahead to offer us smokies and eggs every Friday just to make us stay. I used to wonder, ‘how gullible do they think we are?’

The incentive worked, and later they introduced bus rides home in the company vehicles, which really brightened my experienced as an intern.

Photo credit: Pool

 George Ochieng, 23
Journalism student, Sigalagala National Polytechnic

I was received with so much excitement when I reported for the internship at a new media house in Nairobi. However, I was unprepared for the world of work.

I would be sent on field assignments to gather news where I would spend long hours without a meal. I never received a stipend, not even for lunch. The only “meal” that was available was the office tea, which was served at 2pm daily.

Sometimes I would be required to cover a story in a faraway county, and nobody was willing to allocate funds for food and accommodation.

Some of the equipment we used were faulty, and we often had to use our phones to record.

I understand the media house was just a startup, so I am still thankful to them for giving me a stepping stone in my career. I learnt a lot and connected with key players in the media realm. 

Apart from the fact that I received no pay as an intern, I also never attained my dream of hosting a TV show live. I really hoped for such a chance as it would have helped grow my brand as a journalist.

To survive the internship period, I depended on the small business I have been running since I joined the polytechnic. I would like to urge company heads to be a little more considerate given the harsh economy and offer interns some form of compensation, however little.

Mary Njeri, 24 
Intern at a marketing firm

I have been in two internships in the last two years. The first one was a four-month-long industrial attachment which I held last year, which was deeply frustrating.

My supervisor was hostile and from her body language, I knew she wasn’t willing to offer me any guidance.

For the entire stint, I did everything in the marketing agency except what I had signed up for.

I was eager to learn but I received very little support. I was so demotivated. I lacked even the zeal to go to work, and to make matters worse, I was not paid even a single cent. 

I was just reporting to work in the name of gaining exposure and work experience, which is a great thing, but at the end of the day, my parents had t0 cater for my upkeep.

I had hoped that since I was adding value to the company, the supervisors would grant me a stipend to cater for at least for fare or lunch, which didn't happen. 

There was tea in plenty, but you had to buy your own snacks to go with it.

I quietly endured the awful period and got to put my theoretical skills to practise. 

I graduated last year and I am now on my second internship stint in a different organisation. The work environment here is better and I have found a team that is willing and ready to nurture my strengths.

Based on my two experiences as an intern, I think interns who are diligent in their work should be absorbed by the companies they dilligently work for, or at least be supported to learn and gain the experience they need.

While internships are beneficial to college students and new graduates, it is wrong to undermine or exploit interns. It is baffling that companies want to pay you little to nothing, but expect your output to be high. Why should an intern be paid peanuts while an employee with the same duties gets paid so much more?

Photo credit: Pool

Gregory Nyataige, 22
Graduate of Commerce

I completed my three-month attachment trainee programme at an audit firm in April this year. During the entire period, I received no pay. However, I was able to gain valuable experience.

I had taken CPA (Certified Public Accountant) packages in addition to my degree,  so I thought I would get an upper hand and receive payment as an intern, only to realise the qualifications don't really matter.

I received no pay for the first three months, but upon completion, I was offered a six-month contract with the same audit firm. I had gained experience and become valuable to the company. I now get a stipend, but the amount doesn’t match my qualifications and skill set. I am grateful for the wages but with the current economy and high cost of living, it is barely enough to live on.

As an intern, you don’t get to negotiate for pay because employers believe you are the one in need and they know you have nowhere to go because securing an internship is not easy.  

I think it is wrong to underpay interns, especially after they have completed their period of attachment.

Corporates should stop exploiting interns. They don’t expect to be paid so much, but at least cater for their lunch and transport.

Photo credit: Pool


May Nyaga is the Head of Human Capital at Faulu Microfinance Bank.

Young professionals are often told that they have more to gain from internship positions. Would you agree that some organisations exploit interns and profit from free labour?

Organisations and firms that offer unpaid internships primarily focus on providing educational experiences to interns and they view this as part of Corporate Social Responsibility(CSR). These internships are often legal and can be mutually beneficial if they provide valuable learning opportunities. However, concerns arise when interns are asked to perform tasks that benefit the organisation without fair compensation. That’s when they begin to feel exploited.

 The prevalence of unpaid internships varies by industry. Some fields are more likely to offer stipends, while don’t.  From a regulatory point of view, there is the National Industrial Training Authority (NITA) whose mandate is to promote the highest standards in the quality and efficiency of industrial training in Kenya and ensure an adequate supply of properly trained manpower at all levels.  

Why is the corporate world so unwilling to offer interns a token of appreciation?

The reasons for this vary widely based on several factors. It all depends on a complex interplay of factors, including budgetary constraints, legal requirements, industry norms, and organisational values. Compensating interns can improve the overall quality of internship programs and promote fairness, but it's important to consider all factors and approach the issue thoughtfully to avoid discouraging organisations from accommodating interns. 

Are internships creating illusionary jobs where young people are busy but technically unemployed (not earning from their work)

 Yes, that situation is known as underemployment and it stems from unpaid or low-paid internships, lack of benefits, limited or long working hours, and the perception that internships primarily serve as educational experiences.

There are cases where, depending on the company policies or culture, interns may face abuse through renewal of contracts that assign to them new roles, without payment.  This is a cheap way for an organisation to get more hands on deck to ensure smooth running of activities, but at the expense of interns.

Inadvertently, this poses financial challenges and creates barriers to interns who are expected to perform tasks at a high level yet they lack the means to afford basic expenses such as transport fare and meals.

This problem can be addressed through honest discussions about fair compensation and the role of internships in workforce development driven by the Human Resources policies, and anchored on the organisation’s mission, as well on talent management. We have seen some cases where empathetic team members in a department join hands and make personal contributions to support their interns financially, thereby motivating them so they can all achieve the company’s goals.