Don’t you e’er forget.
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.
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.
After visiting a wide scope of rural markets, it’s always jarring to enter a Nakumatt. Nakumatt is an Indian-run chain of supermarkets that give Walmart a run for its money. Kisumu is lucky enough to be home to the biggest Nakumatt in the country, the mega city!
In a city where a skyscraper is two stories and all restaurants specialize in tilapia and ugali (cornmeal), the Nakumatt (with its own furniture floor!) really does feel like a city of its own.
Essential to the Industrial Area’s thriving activity, and indeed a critical differentiator from rural jua kali, is an equally thriving materials infrastructure. To sustain the manufacturing of so many diverse products, a separate industry has emerged for raw materials, both recycled and new.
One of the first things you see as you enter the area, a mountain of oil drums left over from local factories. Middlemen regularly deliver waste and scrap, as well as new materials, directly from factories.
To build their sometimes intricate products, jua kali use a range of tools, from blunt edges to complex machinery. Many of the tools are impressively manufactured by jua kali themselves. In areas with power, welding equipment and power carpentry tools are hugely important.
What we might think of as esoteric building materials, I-beams are an essential component to the jua kali toolkit, used as an edge for bending.
The products sold in the Industrial Area seem at first to vary widely. In fact, dramatically so when compared to the rural jua kali, who are perpetually stuck on doors and windows. Eventually, you begin to see quite a bit of repetition, and while the diversity of products may be somewhat greater than it was 20 years ago (though not much), it is clear that even jua kali here are still stuck in a pattern of making what everyone else is making.
Our guides specialize in trunks of all sizes, down to tin school bags. It is striking how similar the designs of products like these are to their formally manufactured counterparts, sold at the local Nakumatt supermarket. The jua kali haven’t necessarily gotten creative with the design itself, but very much so in terms of replication. They improvise until the fabrication process becomes efficient and scalable.
Customers have come to know jua kali as a low-cost alternative to formal markets with a very similar product selection. Perhaps this expectation is one of the many factors preventing jua kali from developing unique designs.
As soon as I stepped foot in Nairobi’s Industrial Area, which encompasses three of the most dynamic concentrations of informal sector activity in the world (Gikomba, Kamukunji, and Burmah Market), a stupid grin emerged on my face. I knew this was exactly what I came to Kenya for. The area is the heart of the country’s jua kali (“hot sun”) industry of informal artisans and feels (and indeed functions) like its own world. It is an impressive world that has emerged gradually from the grass roots over the last half a century, filling gaps in the formal sector in terms of employment and manufacturing. It remains dynamic and uniquely Kenyan to this day.
As you roll up to the Industrial Area outskirts, you first come across stands selling clothing sent from abroad, some of which bear the names of losing championship teams (for every major sporting event, enough shirts are printed for both outcomes). Deliverymen pass by with new and scrap materials from local factories.
Being back in Nairobi has its perks. Moving from the deep rural into the city makes you realize why so many flock here, even though most will not be able to access even basic infrastructure or resources. Many purchase food or supplies to bring back to the villages, though the slum dwellers who can’t afford it simply don’t visit home since expectations are so high.
Nevertheless, here are some of the comforts I have come to appreciate:
- Consistent power and (hot) water
- Limited, but extant, internet access
- Convenient shopping, including malls
- Of course, I saw Harry Potter the day it came out.
- Most importantly, Western food. I salivated all over my King Steer Value Meal yesterday.
And then some downsides:
- Everything is cheap looking and modernist. None of Kisumu’s beautiful painted buildings.
- The air is almost unbreathable.
- Traffic takes up about half your day. We sat in a single spot for a full hour today.
- The matatus are insane. Nairobi needs to rethink its public transit.
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