I’ve had this video lying around since July, but have been too embarrassed to show you.
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.
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.
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.
Nairobi’s jua kali artisans are known for their hacked-together solutions that are cheap, efficient, and functional. Take for instance this popular style of workbench typically made from scrap metal. Start with a simple frame of square steel tubing and attach relevant parts as needed.
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