Archive: January, 2010
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.
Sam runs an electronics supply shop in Kawangware called Saphy Electricals that happens to have a “thorough” selection of electrical wire (look after the jump to see what I mean). He stocks both new wire and used wire, which he buys from local workshops as scrap. If a new wire costs KSH50 (USD0.67) per meter, the same quality wire used would cost about KSH40 (USD0.53) per meter.
The reason the economics are so crazy here is that traditional woven rope can cost up to KSH350 (USD4.67) per meter, so many customers actually buy this wire to use as clotheslines!
I told my guide Barry that I hadn’t seen any electronics workshops yet, and he knew just where to go. The first stop was Modern Electronics in Kawangware, where entrepreneur John repairs TVs, radios, and amplifiers. He was trained informally by a friend and has been running this business for four years. He also offers battery charging services.
The culture of reuse and repair is alive and well in the electronics sector.
Why are these banks labeled 2010? I asked the same question myself. Kenyans at the BOP tend to save money on an annual basis. Banks do well at the start of the year.
Kawangware is one of the largest slums in Nairobi with a population of about 200,000, but has a thriving commercial market center with a manufacturing area situated just behind the market sheds. My trusty guide and translator Barry, a talented scrap sculptor, was born in Kawangware and knew it well.
Leonard (shown) runs a furniture shop in Kawangware. He says one of his greatest strengths is his ability to work with customers. He knows many of them have tight budgets, so he judges the quality based on what people can afford. Want something cheap? You’ll get a cabinet like the one on the left, which might take two days to complete. Want something nice? You can get something more carefully crafted and finished like the cabinet on the right, which could take up to four days.
While the Kenya Bureau of Standards might frown upon such a practice, it is this type of quality and price matching that make the jua kali sector so appropriate.
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