After checking out the Kisumu branch of the Kenya Industrial Research and Development Institute (KIRDI), the government’s R&D arm, we decided to visit the much more developed headquarters in Nairobi (with several advanced fabrication facilities). We met with Dr. Moses Makayoto, Director of Research, to discuss potential partnerships.
Unlike KIRDI Kisumu, KIRDI Nairobi has several big projects going on, including three biogas plants and an on-site leather plant. They even have a major LED manufacturing initiative suspiciously similar to UNIDO’s Lighting Up Kenya. It’s called Lighting Africa. How many government organizations are repeating each other’s work without coordination?
Since KIRDI’s mission is R&D to spur industry, its current goal is to create 100 small and medium enterprises (SMEs) with the potential to grow to large industries. They also regularly build manufacturing facilities for larger clients. All their work is done at market rates, and since they are semi-autonomous, the government has no say about anything they do with their own raised funds. Right now, Makayoto says their focus is on decentralizing industry out of Nairobi (ours too), but we noticed virtually no interaction between the Nairobi and Kisumu branches.
Their workshop facilities were very impressive, the most advanced open facilities we had seen. They even had a room with precision computerized equipment donated as part of a UNIDO program, though due to the poor and unregulated power system, some of the machines’ electrical systems have broken down beyond KIRDI’s repair capacity. We saw some awesome prototypes, including bicycle-powered (and mobile), mills and threshers remarkably similar to my design at Brown, though all diesel-powered and a bit too advanced and to be fabricated outside Nairobi.
KIRDI also had a ceramics workshop where they were experimenting with new types of bricks, including one made from shredded money that the government had taken out of circulation. Apparently, a lot of old money needs a new home.
Surprisingly 80% of the workshop’s jobs were commissioned by the informal jua kali sector, though KIRDI preferred to focus its efforts elsewhere since jua kali products are not standardized or regulated.
Today we met with Alexander Varghese, Kenya Country Director of the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) at the UN Headquarters in Nairobi. Interestingly, two UN organizations are headquartered in Nairobi: UNEP and UNHABITAT.
UNIDO has a new program called Lighting Up Kenya, whose mission is threefold: clean energy generation and provision, productive use of that energy, and resulting social empowerment. Kenya is enduring a huge energy crisis, with its tree cover diminishing from 12% at independence to just 1% today. UNIDO wants to develop small kilowatt-level plants to supply power locally using alternative energy sources like solar, wind, and biomass. It will use the power to supply new Community Development Centers (CDC), which will promote small enterprises by employing small-scale equipment like welding machines and the assembly facilities for LED lamps with very simple, yet imported, designs. They have signed a huge deal with Equity Bank to offer microfinance opportunities.
Varghese is a straight shooter. He says that for every dollar he invests, he wants a dolar twenty back. He is a rare and refreshing personality in the industry. He is very interested in partnering with ACESS, which would be able to create income generating facilities and activities at UNIDO’s CDCs. In return, Varghese will both fundraise for us and ensure that the villages we are already working in be some of the pilot locations to receive power and CDCs! He has hired us to perform research in these villages and write feasibility reports based on the potential in the surrounding areas.
Some interesting points that came up in discussion with Varghese:
- 90% of Kenyan homes have no electric lighting, creating a 700m USD market for kerosene lighting.
- By manufacturing LED lamps locally, the cost can be reduced from 30 USD to 15 USD. The fact that these very simple LED lamps, which comprise an LED, a simple printed circuit board, and a battery, are revolutionary for Kenya says a lot about its current manufacturing capacity.
- Power lines from traditional megawatt-level plants run straight through the villages to the cities, mostly Nairobi. The villagers can’t access the power because they can’t afford transformers to step down the voltage (we’ve heard this before). This is where decentralized kilowatt-level plants come into play.
- In one of the pilot CDCs, a jua kali was brought in to use the welding machine. He only used the machine a few hours a week when he received orders for doors and windows, confirming my hypothesis on competitive disadvantage.
- These small entrepreneurs don’t just need the technology, but they need ideas to develop new products and markets. That’s why Varghese is so excited about ACESS starting small enterprises to manufacture farming tools—it’s something besides doors and windows.
- Swine flu rages through Kenya with one case reported. Everyone is up in arms and wonders why we even want to go to the country during a swine flu “epidemic.” I thought it was insane considering the other diseases that are acually pandemic to the region, but it makes sense when you consider that Kenya is in no way prepared for a real outbreak.
- Everyone is talking about the “envelope” that Kofi Annan is handing over to the Kenyan government. It contains the names of suspected masterminds behind last year’s post-election violence.
- Kenyans, who now feel slighted by Obama’s visiting Ghana over Kenya (and his recent criticisms of the Kenyan government), can SMS him comments and questions at standard messaging rates.
Incidentally, Barack Obama’s uncle, Said Obama, works at the molasses plant. President Obama has recently been quoted in a number of papers attacking the Kenyan government, providing the example of a relative who has had trouble finding a job since it is common for employers to require bribes. Clarice believes he was referring to Said, but don’t quote me on that.
It is well-known that Kenyans are Obama-crazy, but there is actually some conflict behind all the hype. Ages ago, when Obama was just a senator, he spoke at a university in Kenya and criticized the government for its corruption. Many Kenyans scolded him in the media, saying he was just a junior senator and had no authority to speak on behalf of either the US or Kenya. It was not even when he ran for president, but when he clinched the nomination, that Kenyans (Luos and Kikuyus alike) started calling him their “native son.” It is a joke now that everyone seems to have suddenly developed a blood relation to Obama, including Prime Minister Raila Odinga.
But now that he has “snubbed” Kenya in his visit to Africa, citing the corrupt government as his reason for not visiting, Kenyans are once again divided with many kindly advising him to stick to his own country.
By the way, Said also took a picture of the three of us with his mobile phone since we were the first Americans to visit him at the plant!
One of the major problems in Kenya is unemployed youth. Even for university and polytechnic graduates, few job opportunities exist. Youth in Kenya are defined as between ages 15 and 30 and, as such, constitute the majority of the population. The government fears that idling hoodlums will reach critical mass and ultimately degrade society or lead to some version of a revolution.
One of ACESS’s goals is to create employment opportunities for educated youth, who can operate franchises or train farmers and tool manufacturers. To that end, we met with Bondo Constituency Development Fund Director Fred Ogoye and District Youth Officer Mary Ochola, essentially the highest-ranking officials charged with ground-level implementation. The district has made a huge push toward creating youth opportunities. They have councils of youth at every level in the constituency, subsidize polytechnic tuition, and provide technical training. Their work falls under the following themes: employent, training, environment, health, crime & drugs, and volunteerism.
One of their current initiatives is to build hubs where youth can access the internet and apply for jobs, an effort to keep them off the street. They also have a revolving fund of 2m KSH/25.6k USD to support youth groups who pay upfront management fee of 5%. Repayment has been a meager 15% of the 2m KSH. They chalk it up to the post-election violence, but I think the government needs to learn about credit risk.
One of the most interesting things I learned is that the government convenes youth via SMS. If we wanted to access educated youth for interviews, Mary could get up a database of unemployed residents with college degrees, send them 50 KSH of airtime to compensate their travel costs, and they would show up! I’m sure we will be making use of this.
Today I got a heavy dose of village life. Intravillage and constituent-government dynamics are complex, interesting, and at times tedious.
The Member of Parliament and District Commissioner of Bondo were in town visiting their constituents. Each village makes a huge production with food and speeches to celebrate their presence. Without my knowledge or approval, we endured four ceremonies in four villages with four lunches.
All village ceremonies and meetings are held at schools because they are considered neutral ground and no one can complain. A lot of complaining goes on here.
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