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.
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.
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.
I got back to Nairobi yesterday (this time by plane). When I told the cab driver I was from New York, he told me he hated Hillary Clinton because when she visited in August, all mobile service was shut down for the day. “My phone is my office,” he told me. Indeed, physicality is becoming less important here.
While in Kisumu, I made sure to stop by the Kisumu Innovation Centre – Kenya (KICK), a for-profit enterprise that works with artisans to design new products for export and bring them to market. We got lost on the way to KICK, mostly because it is deep within Kibuye Market, the largest open market in East Africa. The place is truly remarkable.
I entered the meeting wondering whether I was at KICK (formerly an NGO that trained artisans) or ZIWA (a spin-off for-profit that dealt with trading). It turned out both KICK and ZIWA had gone under in 2003 due to mismanagement and corruption. Three very brave Kenyans revived KICK In 2005 as a social enterprise and took a full three years to pay off KICK/ZIWA’s former debt to the artisans and landlord.
As Chris, Marijoan, and I rode in a cab to the train station (of course “rode” implies that we were moving), our driver blabbed about the various common tribal stereotypes: Luos are fishermen, Kikuyus are farmers, Asians are businessmen, etc. But when asked what traditions he stuck to, he responded: “Me? I’m a Christian. I live in the city. Culture is dead.”
While a great exaggeration—culture continues to shape Kenyan community, livelihood, and industry—the statement got me thinking about the role of traditional values and practices in an industrializing society. Too much tradition and too little money can ravage a market economy, yet community and indigenous knowledge can also be leveraged for sustainable growth. To what extent does culture’s influence on (or interference with) the market promote or hinder progress? A few points:
First, there is a distinct Kenyan way of conducting business, as opposed to, say the Asian or Western way. Kenyans rely largely on social networks (no, not Twitter) to shape their business activities because they know trust will prevail over the law and formal institutions. Tight-knit communities, especially within clusters, help train one another, share information, and lend goods and services.
Second, this has led to certain potentially undesirable practices. Tribalism is rampant in both politics and industry. Employers, like politicians, tend to favor those from their own tribe. Nepotism is often seen as positive: you have to look out for your own brothers (and sisters, sometimes). However, this attitude often creates conflict and unnecessary divisions.
Third, the focus on community has been leveraged throughout the developing world through cooperatives and welfare associations in which locals, particularly in rural areas, pool their resources, lend money to each other, exchange information, and support one another. This has been tapped into successfully in the microfinance industry. However, social pressures and pooling of common resources can sometimes have harmful effects when someone defaults, corruption occurs, or there is a lack of ownership over common goods.
Fourth, holding onto traditional practices has had harmful results, particularly in rural areas. For example, Nyanza Province, home to the Luo tribe, has the highest HIV rate in the country largely due to its cultural practices. It is a challenge (physically and ethically) in the healthcare sector to convince locals to modernize.
Lastly, the erosion of cultural practices has also had some harmful effects, particularly in agriculture. Modern land use practices (combined with climate change) have led to degradation of land with often devastating effects on local livelihood. Indigenous knowledge must be tapped and combined with contemporary sustainability practices to regain this land.
Traditionally, microenterprises have been viewed as inefficient because they lack significant resources—capital, labor, technology, etc.—compared to larger firms. However, this view misses an important point: microenterprise efficiency comes not from the individual firm, but from the dynamics among similar enterprises in collective geospatial clusters. Clustering can bring about many positive effects: attracting customers, labor, and producer services; exchanging information and skills; and forming linkages among enterprises. Linkages among firms occur in two different ways1:
- Horizontal linkages – sharing labor and technology, as well as sub-contracting among firms
- Vertical linkages – relationships with suppliers and traders, as well as groupings of enterprises in associations
Well-developed clusters experience the most advanced benefits, especially those that take conscious effort by the entrepreneurs, such as sub-contracting, firm specialization, and forming associations. However, there are also negative effects. The jua kali apprenticeship system tends to breed workers who are skilled in only one product or trade. Once they conclude their apprenticeships, workers are likely to set up enterprises that compete directly with their masters. Since copying is rampant, the jua kali feel that it is not worth investing time and money in developing new designs or technologies.
I have already taken you through the well-developed Gikomba metalwork cluster. Now let’s look at a nascent, but emerging furniture and art cluster forming along Ngong Road, known locally as Racecourse for the tracks nearby that supply a steady customer base.
In Kenya, informal craftsmen are known as jua kali. When jua kali complete their apprenticeships, they save enough money to buy a welding machine, obtain premises, and start a workshop in the informal sector. This is the story of Moses, who established his workshop six years ago along Ngong Road. He started by fabricating typical furniture pieces, but switched to sculpture three years ago when he came across an interested European buyer. Now he makes these high-end sculptures out of scrap metal and is one of the most successful entrepreneurs in the area.
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