Nairobi Industrial Area
As soon as I stepped foot in Nairobi’s Industrial Area, which encompasses three of the most dynamic concentrations of informal sector activity in the world (Gikomba, Kamukunji, and Burmah Market), a stupid grin emerged on my face. I knew this was exactly what I came to Kenya for. The area is the heart of the country’s jua kali (“hot sun”) industry of informal artisans and feels (and indeed functions) like its own world. It is an impressive world that has emerged gradually from the grass roots over the last half a century, filling gaps in the formal sector in terms of employment and manufacturing. It remains dynamic and uniquely Kenyan to this day.
As you roll up to the Industrial Area outskirts, you first come across stands selling clothing sent from abroad, some of which bear the names of losing championship teams (for every major sporting event, enough shirts are printed for both outcomes). Deliverymen pass by with new and scrap materials from local factories.
And finally you arrive at these storefronts. Though squatters have settled here and developed their own small enterprises since the 1950s, the Kenyan government finally recognized the jua kali in the 1970s and ultimately allocated land and sheds to the workers. Today, ostensibly any jua kali can come set up shop here.
The narrow streets in this bustling market center are densely packed with vehicles and pedestrians.
Jua kali are known to eek every possible use out of their available space and resources, resulting in diversified shops like this that offer everything from wheelbarrows to soda.
One length of this strip is dedicated to homes, where you can always find some income-generating activites, from retail to barbershops.
Clarice recognized this group of trunk makers as from her Luo tribe and instantly made a connection with them. They became our guides, taking us around the area, showing us many of the products, and translating so we could communicate with the locals.
Deeper inside is a labyrinth of makeshift shops that sell products manufactured on or very near the premises.
Inside one of the manufacturing sheds you can see nature is no obstacle to cramming in as many structures as possible.
A typical hardware shop where you can purchase many jua kali items, as well as some imported essentials. This type of shop is similar to the small shops you see around the country that sell single-serve products and mobile credit, but geared towards the local industry market.
This woman sells homebrewed kitchen utensils, door locks, and tools. Like most of the manufacturers here, the designs are replicated from products you see in formal chains and look pretty much identical.
These products make their way upcountry through middlemen who bring large quantities on matatus (public buses) for resale. I wonder why this practice is discouraged as it seems like it would expand the market for their products.
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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