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.
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.
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