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.
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.
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.
A Fab Lab is a collection of computerized fabrication equipment devised at MIT and deployed to the far reaches of the Earth. Since we have already visited the Fab Lab in Bondo, I will refrain from giving you the grand tour, but know that the equipment claims to be able to make “almost anything” on a small scale. Instead, I will show you some of the unique and innovative activities going on at the Fab Lab here at the University of Nairobi, operated by the visionary Dr. Kamau Gachigi.
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.
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.
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.
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