The day is finally here, when all of the research you’ve seen on this site (and more!) has been integrated into a beautiful, edible little package called Making Do: Innovation in Kenya’s Informal Economy! You can read the book online for free and in print at cost. For a limited time, you can get free shipping on the book and 20% off the cost at Lulu with the coupon code BACKTOSCHOOL.
It is my hope that this book deepens conversations related to humanitarian design, the informal economy, and industrialization. I welcome your responses and feedback, and please help spread the word!
After years of research, writing, and designing I am excited to announce that Making Do: Innovation in Kenya’s Informal Economy will be released next week on Tuesday, August 10th!
The book is an investigation into the systems of innovation—the processes, networks, and barriers—among Kenya’s informal makers, known as jua kali. The work is based on the research I have conducted in Kenya and elsewhere in Africa, much of which has been documented on this site. It is written for a general audience with photographs, infographics, and case studies, but will be especially useful to practitioners of fields related to development and technology.
Making Do will be available online for free and in print at cost. I hope to share my insights with as many people as possible in the hopes of provoking conversation and motivating action. Please spread the word!
Until Tuesday, catch a sneak preview.
I’ve had this video lying around since July, but have been too embarrassed to show you.
I’ve said it before—Africa needs innovation hubs.
Microenterprise theory tells us that efficiency arises from linkages among enterprises, as opposed to the Western mode of vertical and horizontal integration. These linkages—relations with suppliers, traders, and competitors—can be promoted through geospatial clustering. But advanced capital goods and machinery are still out of reach for microenterprises and cooperation is often difficult.
That’s why innovation hubs are so important. An innovation hub should have relevant machinery open to the public for rent, as well as training programs so members can learn to use the machinery properly. The machines can be paid for by the minute (small units work better for small enterprise) or through a membership fee. Innovation hubs can be a strong asset for a local association to leverage or could operate as a for-profit enterprise. The Fab Lab has been successfully made computerized equipment accessible throughout the world. But the same model must be applied to lower end machinery in informal industrial areas.
Erik Hersman, founder of Afrigadget and Ushahidi, has just opened a new innovation hub in Nairobi, not for this segment, but for Nairobi’s ICT community. Aptly titled iHub, the space is secured for coworking, collaboration, and incubation for those in the information technology space. This is a huge achievement and will help the ICT community grow and flourish in Nairobi. Erik kindly gave me the grand tour:
Here’s a collection of interesting jua kali methods of temporary and permanent joining and fastening. Imported screws and nails are often too expensive to use regularly, which leads to some creative workarounds.
The far and out dominant mode of joining in these parts is electric arc welding. Owning a welding machine has become a right of passage for opening a business in metalwork.
A week or so ago I proposed the following question: what is the place for traditional culture in an industrializing society? And in particular, how is culture affecting Kenya’s progress? Kenyan Entrepreneur has pushed a bit further to claim that Africa has a culture of “non-progress” in which people fail to recognize or act on opportunities:
“I tend to agree with Brook’s commentary that culture has a lot to do with a country’s progress. I’ve said before that Africa’s poverty can be attributed to the fact that Africa does not have a culture of production. If something cannot be extracted from the ground (e.g. oil, gold, etc, etc) – we simply will not create or make it and this culture of non-production is the main cause of Africa’s poverty. That’s why foreign aid hasn’t worked. It’s because the do-gooder’s of the world have refused (out of fears of being labeled “racist” – have refused to confront this underlying question of culture).”
I think he’s right, but recognizing this fact is just one piece of the puzzle. Why is there such a culture of non-production? And what can be done to change it? For one, people are used to the idea that others (the government, NGOs, credit institutions) should swoop in and provide help. God knows they need it, but ingenuity can do a lot more than government can, trust me.
Second, the institutions that have meant to transition Kenya from a subsistence to a market economy have flat-out failed. The ideas for developing Kenya are there! The implementation has foundered time and time again due to corruption, politicking, and poor coordination by the government, parastatals, and privatized institutions.
Third, there is a reliance on imports: capital and consumer goods from abroad are viewed as a better (if not the only) option than building up capacity locally. Domestic products are seen as low quality, perhaps because people know how things are made locally and think the process is somehow better or more professional abroad. The country could use a “Buy Kenyan” campaign.
Lastly, there absolutely are people and institutions who are “progress oriented.” There are many of them and I’ve met them. For example, look how Dominic is making innovative use of the Fab Lab or how tirelessly countless entrepreneurs at the bottom of the pyramid are working to grow their businesses, like Daniel who has expanded from electronics repair to a cyber cafe in just one year and now wants to start a computer training school. I heard a retail shop owner in Kisumu (where even those in Nairobi say dreams go to die) tell me she submitted a business plan to a VC firm abroad and is hoping to receive an investment to open an eco-lodge. She doesn’t want charity, she wants business. Tell me that’s not progress-orientation!
These innovators need to be cultivated. I’ve heard too many stories of talented individuals who have been shot down for loans, intellectual property, or any kind of support (even emotional). The government and formal institutions have too little faith in the micro and small enterprise sector, but that’s where the drive and progress will—nay, must—come from! So make loans more accessible, promote the development of new technologies, make intellectual property a reality, and craft linkages between the formal and informal, e.g. sub-contracting and investment, so that capital can flow to the little guys.
Jikos, Swahili for cook stoves, are used in just about every household in Kenya. Traditionally, they use large quantities of firewood and heavily pollute indoor environments. Luckily, the jiko also happens to be one of the biggest success stories in Kenyan appropriate technology. Dr. Maxwell Kinyanjui, Founder of Musaki Enterprises, invented an energy-saving stove called the Kenyan Ceramic Jiko (KCJ) in 1982. The idea was to change the shape slightly and add a clay insert to the scrap steel housing to insulate the jiko and use less firewood. Great design, true, but so many great appropriate technologies have been developed and rusted. Here’s what was so brilliant about the Kenyan Ceramic Jiko:
- It was a very simple switch from the traditional metal jiko (see photo, back) to the clay insert (front)
- Kinyanjui educated artisans on production of the housing and community groups on the ceramic insert
- Kinyanjui also educated consumers on the cost savings that would accrue over time from reduced energy
The verdict is in: Gikomba is the center of the jua kali universe. Almost every informal sector product has roots in Gikomba—the design, the materials, the tools, the inner frame, or the finished product itself. In sofa production, according to Lilac Osanjo, the frames of all jua kali sofa beds, from rural roadsides to formal furniture shops, originate in Gikomba. The area churns out 1,400 sofa frames per day! Even more interesting, nearly all design decisions, says Osanjo, are made by the time the frame is complete. Of the 33 sofa making enterprises in Gikomba (disaggregated into many specialized shops with 1,400 workers), only five are said to determine new designs, largely by copying furniture from Nakumatt or European catalogs.
Following Lilac’s presentation, a debate arose among the audience on whether Gikomba was a “nightmare” or a “thriving organism.” No doubt it is the latter, but just try doing research there. I dare you.
Today I was invited to a PhD dissertation presentation by Lilac Osanjo at the University of Nairobi, who is investigating “The Product Design Practice within the Micro and Small Enterprise Sector in Kenya” and specifically focusing on the case study of sofa makers. Her goal is to extract the design process that the jua kali go through to develop the sofa design choices that diffuse throughout the sector.
A few points of contention arose among the audience. If the jua kali are just copying designs from Nakumatt or catalogs, is that really a design process? Others suggested that Lilac compare the artisans’ process to academic processes or international design standards. “What can we learn from Japan?” a professor asked. But Lilac was steadfast in her belief that the whatever the jua kali’s process of design was, it should be taken for what it is, not for what it’s not. What she hopes to come up with resembles a pie chart: what percentage of the design is influenced by customer preference, affordability, copying, artisans’ skills, artisans’ imagination, etc?
Understanding the existing design and thought process of the jua kali—however they define design—will be incredibly valuable. Not to mention how massive a challenge Lilac is already facing digging through the many layers of Gikomba to uncover patterns and reason.
The informal sector runs on scrap. This introduces several interesting dynamics into the sector. First, it links microenterprises to the big guns, some of which supply a steady stream of factory waste, while others scoop up the materials for recycling. Second, it minimizes the ecological footprint of an otherwise sprawling phenomenon by encouraging reuse and repair. Note that this is not intentional: many jua kali would prefer to use higher quality materials. Others, though, find that using cheap materials actually works well with export markets, particularly in art. Of course, relying on scrap forever isn’t necessarily sustainable, judging by the clouds of black smoke trailing behind most vehicles.
Making Do is an investigation into systems of innovation in Kenya's informal economy. Learn more and read the book online or in print here.
I'm Steve Daniels. I study the transformative impact of technology on individuals and societies. I am the founder of the Better World by Design conference at Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design and Analogue Digital, a publisher of content related to global cultures of technology. Currently, I work at IBM Research, where I study mobile social computing in emerging markets.
I am particularly interested in how people create, adapt, and use technology in resource-constrained environments, which I have written about in Making Do: Innovation in Kenya's Informal Economy.
- Emerging Futures Lab
- Future Perfect
- Information Aesthetics
- Maker Faire Africa
- Smarter Planet
- Timbuktu Chronicles
- White African