Archive for the ‘jua kali’ Category

Innovation, Ingenuity and Opportunity under Conditions of Scarcity (Download PDF)

coverIn July 2009, I was inspired by working in the Research wing of the Aalto University’s Design Factory in Espoo, Finland, to launch a group blog called REculture: Exploring the post-consumption economy of repair, reuse, repurpose and recycle by informal businesses at the Base of the Pyramid*.

Within a year, this research interest evolved into a multidisciplinary look at the culture of innovation and invention under conditions of scarcity and it’s lessons for sustainable manufacturing and industry for us in the context of more industrialized nations.

reculture research bed

Emerging Futures Lab, July 2010 (Aalto Design Factory)

As a preliminary exploration, my research associate Mikko Koskinen and I timed our visit to Kenya to coincide with the Maker Faire Africa to be held on the grounds of the University of Nairobi in August 2010.

This photographic record of our discoveries (PDF 6MB) among the jua kali artisans and workshops of Nairobi, Nakuru, Thika, and Kithengela, guided by biogas inventor and innovator Dominic Wanjihia captures the essence of the creativity and ingenuity it takes to create without ample resources and adequate infrastructure.

A synopsis of our analysis is available here.


* The publishing platform, Posterous, died a short while later and we lost years of work. I’m looking into reincarnating REculture on Tumblr soon.


African Youth find Opportunities in Informal Sector Biashara


Biashara in Africa’s emerging economies – Nigeria, Kenya, Zimbabwe- are at loggerheads with the state.  An ever bulging young demographic  and a failure to absorb them into the formal economy has resulted in increased biashara.  The informal sector’s low barrier to entry, appeals to the young Africans’ aspirations, like Simon Danda from Zimbabwe. Rather than to idle, he is one of many tapping into biashara opportunities, mostly in trade and services. A common theme is sweeping across the the continent. Yacine Bio- Tchane observes from Benin, West Africa

“ECOWAS countries’ economies are driven by more than 50% by the informal economy. In Benin, where the informal sector represents more than 90% of the economy, graduates are found becoming drivers of taxi-motos to make ends meet. They were not able to find work within their sector so they became taxi-motos.”

But, the peculiar nature of the informal economy is a challenge for state agencies.

On July 13 2016, for the umpteenth time, City Hall officials from Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, vowed to crack down on informal sector biashara people: Hawkers, Matatus, Boda bodas, car washes, roadside eateries, and street families.

“The Nairobi County Government has formed a sub-committee tasked with restoring order and sanity in the central business district (CBD) following complaints from businesses over hawkers’ invasion of key streets. All car washes, kiosks and hawkers will be arrested with immediate effect”  – Business Daily

2 weeks earlier, the Nigerian state of Lagos had clamped down on street trading in a bid to sanitize its streets.

“Lagos State Governor Akinwunmi Ambode, said the renewed enforcement was in line with Section One of the Lagos State Street Trading and Illegal Market Prohibition Law of 2003, prohibiting street trading.” – Lagos Goes Tough on Street Trading, Hawking

2 months prior to Nairobi’s crackdown, Zimbabwe’s efforts to contain protests were met by strong resistance from informal biashara people. Traders opposed an ultimatum to either vacate streets by end of June or face arrest.

“We are not going anywhere until the government give us jobs, it’s better they kill us. I have an accounts degree and was forced into street vending because there are no jobs. They destroyed the economy and now they ban us from selling on the streets.”Ventures Africa

In Africa, the line between an entrepreneur and a lawbreaker is a thin one.

Biashara contributes to the economy

informal sector jobs

When I walk through Nairobi’s Tom Mboya and Moi Avenue, I see entrepreneurs. Young men, women, breastfeeding mothers and the disabled committed to biashara. They will sell you anything you want! From foodstuffs, to electronics, or the popular mitumba (second hand clothes) to a quick boda ride out of the city.

Arguably, no one understands the needs of consumers better than biashara people. They naturally seek out demand and will go where they can find it. The massive evening foot traffic of the continent’s buzzing capital’s (Nairobi Lagos,Harare) makes for a great concentration of demand.

More people are now turning to the informal sector. GDP and labour force statistics highlights the vital role of this segment in Africa’s economies

“In Kenya, it is estimated that the informal sector in excess of 35 per cent to the GDP and employs close to 80% of the workforce.” – Taxing the informal sector requires better strategy

“In Nigeria, informal trading of which hawking is a part thus accounts for 10% of total Nigeria’s GDP, bigger than crude production” Yemi Kale, Director General of Nigerian Bureau of Statistics

The trouble is the conflict between the state agencies’ perception and the value creating biashara. How we view this sector is important and matters for both public and the private sector in

  • Crafting public policy

Biashara people are taxpayers, and economic contributors just like formal institutions, a fact often forgotten. Just like we craft targeted policy for the formal economy, after considering stakeholders interests, so we should for biashara.

  • Product and service design for Sub Saharan Africa consumer markets

Biashara people are the consumers of the formal economy’s products and services like mobile money transfer services, mobile banking services, sports betting, airtime, and FMCGs.

We need to understand biashara’s operating environment (business or people), if we are going to sell goods and services to this sector.

  • Innovation for Sub Saharan Africa’s economies

Once we appreciate biashara people as a market segment with its own merits, we can free ourselves of our one eyed biases and innovate for their  biashara needs.

For example, we can start by not referring to them as Bottom of the Pyramid people.



*The original version of this article appeared on my blog

Biashara Economics: Get attuned to the cycles in your business – Lesson #4

Just as egg wholesalers know that business spikes during the school holidays due to increased demand, the ladies who trade in clothes, old and new, know that clothing is a discretionary purchase. In the low season, some switch to selling necessities like charcoal, or fresh veg. People still need to cook and eat.

Mama Margeret who used to trade in omena found it too seasonal for a reliable income stream. Both the supply, and the demand were seasonal, thus increasing the volatility of the market. Now, she has settled into wholesale of grains and cereals, with a bit of peanut butter on the side.

Once you get attuned to the natural rhythms of your cash flow – and this, really, is what takes apprentice traders anywhere between 3 to 4 years to feel confident – you can start planning to diversify into wider range of products that work together in a sophisticated financial flow portfolio.

Infrastructure has a direct relationship to how much your rural business can scale


Busia market, Kenya Feb 2016 (Photo: Niti Bhan)

This is a micro-wholesaler and retailer in a staple commodity. Infrastructural constraints limit the stock she can manage at one go – seen as the sack with her name on it. This indicates that it was sourced from some distance away, as this is the matatu’s informal package tracking service. It could have come from rural Uganda – some of the most productive agricultural land is in Eastern Uganda within 60km of the Kenyan border. Food is ridiculously cheap in Uganda and the fish in Busia was swimming a few hours before it landed on your plate with dhania sprinkled over it.

Similarly, that poor fish can only go so far, though the traders have built their own jua kali cold chain and can assure you of 24 hours freshness. Its the tomatos and the cabbages that wilt miserably in the searing sunshine and thus limit Mama’s daily income to the purchasing power in her neighbourhood market. She can’t wait for two days to sell her produce.

Its a natural cap on her ability to scale. Both volumes traded and distance supplied are a function of the quality of the cold chain at the very last mile of the farm to fork sustainable agricultural value chain. They need good logistics and reliable infrastructure. We can’t have the fish spoil during a power outage.

Therefore, you can see the economic importance of good infrastructure and also how such minor easy to implement tweaks can boost and trigger all sorts of emerging opportunities for entrepreneurs.

Innovation, under conditions of resource scarcity

When Mkulima Young, a social media community for young farmers in Kenya tweeted this photograph of a motorcycle modified to pump water, I was delighted. It had been a long time since I’d seen such an excellent example of innovative product development under conditions of resource scarcity.

REculture, the group blog hosted by the now defunct Posterous is gone, though Makeshift magazine still keeps the spirit alive. Afrigadget rarely updates these days, and I, too, have moved on in my interests in the past 5 years since Mikko and I first went to Nairobi for Maker Faire and research.


Leapfrogging the cookstove


Abidjan’s Treichville Market, Cote D’Ivoire 13 Oct 2015

Take a closer look at those LPG (cooking gas) cylinders stacked around the pole, displayed for sale. The small ones on top have a rough and ready metal fitting attached to them which converts them into stoves.

IMG_3068However, you’ll  note in the delivery cart that these small cylinders are without the addition. This makes me wonder if its a value add by the shopkeeper?

IMG_3076It seems as though even this range of LPG table top stoves might be too expensive for some, or is it a solution meant for street vendors of food? The fact that these are being displayed on the smallest (and thus most affordable) size of cylinder is another hint that its an entry level solution.

A closer look implies that this might be a cookstove designed to fit on top of the cylinder and locally handmade by artisans rather than mass manufactured ranges shown above.

IMG_3084Either way, it caught my attention as I’d never seen this directly fitted approach to cooking with LPG before.

Branding the Unbranded: The story of Cookswell Jikos, Kenya

Nakuru jua kali market, Kenya, Aug 2010 Photo Credit: Niti Bhan


These are jikos metal stoves that use charcoal – displayed for sale in the jua kali market in the town of Nakuru, Kenya. Made from scrap metal, using the most rudimentary tools, under conditions of resource scarcity, they are one of the everyday products churned out by the informal manufacturing sector. These are made of metal, as you can see, and are not very efficient. A couple of decades or more ago, Dr. Max Kinyanjui was instrumental in the development and dissemination of a simple yet impactful innovation – the Kenyan Ceramic Jiko (KCJ).

Nakuru jua kali market, Kenya Aug 2010 Photo Credit: Niti Bhan


According to wiki:

The KCJ is simply the traditional Jiko mated to a ceramic liner, producing a stove that is at least one fourth (and up to 50%) more efficient than traditional all-metal alternatives, costing only $2 to $5. The initial model has a distinctive shape, differing from the traditional cylindrical jiko, with the top and bottom the same diameter, tapering at about 30 degrees to a waist.

Nakuru jua kali market, Kenya Aug 2010 Photo Credit: Niti Bhan

This energy efficient version is also available for sale throughout the East African region. You can see many variations on the theme displayed for sale in the photograph above. These products are unbranded and handmade by artisans across the country in makeshift workshops. There are no warranties or guarantees of quality or performance or even after care service. This is the informal trade ecosystem – spanning material supply, fabrication and sales.

Branding the Unbranded

The next generation of Kinyanjuis at Cookswell Jikos, Kenya. Photo courtesy

Recently, I had was able to connect with Teddy Kinyanjui, Dr Max’ son, and speak with him about the company he runs with his sister – Cookswell Jikos – just outside of Nairobi, Kenya. They manufacture and sell the energy efficient charcoal oven, ceramic jikos of course, and lately, innovative and inspired designer barbecues and space heaters.

Cookswell Jiko workshop, Kenya. Photo courtesy

While I’ll probably be referencing again the extremely fascinating insights Teddy was able to share with me over the phone, in this post I’m going to focus on how Cookswell Jikos sets themselves apart as a reputable, branded manufacturer of products more commonly made and sold in the informal sector.

1. Intellectual Property and Copyright of Design

Teddy says this is something they just don’t worry about. Of course the product design will be copied by the informal sector, its a given in the context of the market. In fact, he says, he’s more concerned if an innovation has not be copied within 18 months, as that’s a signal that there’s no demand for it in the market.

Cookswell Jiko Charcoal Ovens, photo courtesy

For instance, the energy efficient charcoal oven is something his father, Dr Max Kinyanjui, designed. As you can see below, something similar to it is on sale in Nakuru market.

Charcoal oven, Nakuru jua kali market, Kenya Aug 2010 Photo credit: Niti Bhan

The difference, says Teddy, boils down to quality, durability, reliability and performance. And those who choose to purchase the more expensive branded original from Cookswell know that if there’s a problem, they’ll get customer service and repair on the spot. Its a business investment for an entrepreneurial bakery and the last thing you need is high energy costs when you’re a startup. This leads us to the second point, keeping trained artisans happy and incentivized.

Artisan at work, Cookswell Jikos, photo courtesy

2. Entrepreneurial business model that resonates with the informal sector’s mindset and worldview

Cookswell Jikos does not employ their artisans nor do they run their operations like a sausage factory. Each artisan is an independent entrepreneur who works on their premises, being provided with the tools and materials, and is paid on their delivery of agreed upon piecework.

In the jua kali sector – over 70% of Kenya’s manufacturing is in the informal sector – workshops along the entire informal industrial ecosystem’s supply chain work in the same fashion. The guy melting down aluminium scrap to mould parts for an autoparts fabricator gets paid for batch production on delivery.

Cookswell Jikos delivery, photo courtesy

However, as an incentive for quality work, which isn’t as consistently available in the jua kali sector, Teddy doesn’t pay them for any repairs or rework that might be required on their products. He’ll send them out to fix a problem on the spot and this takes time away from money they could be earning that day.

Along with design and quality, timeliness of delivery is part of building a reputable brand. Cookswell’s customers know they’ll get their order on time and just the way it was agreed upon. Which brings us to the third key point in the way they’ve carved out a market opportunity in the informal economy – reaching new customers.

Branding the Unbranded, Cookswell Jikos Kenya Photo collage: Amari Bakery

3. Social media and the aspirational African middle class

According to Teddy, his efforts in branding and marketing Cookswell Jikos products have shown him clearly that there’s an economic emergence happening in East Africa, and much of this is reflected by the role of internet and the mobile phone. Where word of mouth and referrals would build a reputation and thus a brand, over time, now can happen overnight due to social media. He says more and more people find him online, through Facebook primarily and Twitter of course, and place their orders online. They’ve even had a guy in the Netherlands who purchased a container full of ovens.

He said that this online activity was one of the very real indicators of the way people’s buying behaviour and purchasing patterns were changing. He’s also seen signals of the aspirational upward mobility and evolving values. Designer barbecues in the backyard look cool yet still offer the same homecooked taste.


Designer charcoal barbecue, Cookswell Jikos, photo from twitter

Formalizing the informal with new product innovations

Their product may look the same as the products sold on the side of the road by jua kali makers and perform the same function but their target audience and customer base knows the difference. They’ve demonstrated that its possible to build a thriving brand in a highly competitive, price sensitive market with little or no regulation.

Where SABMiller crafted an affordable opaque beer to reach the homebrew drinkers, Cookswell Jikos taps into the aspirations of the upwardly mobile with their branded quality. Either way, they’re bridging the informal with the formal in uniquely African ways to carve out whole, new markets.


CNC experts set up kiosks or work on demand on your equipment – imagine jua kali upgrades

Emeka Okafor talking to an award winning maker at Maker Faire Africa 2010, Nairobi August 2010

 Emeka Okafor has captured a blog snippet today that refers to a study on Ghana’s informal manufacturing and fabrication industry:

With over 100,000 technical artisans, auto-mechanics, and purveyors of related supplies, Ghana’s “Suame Magazinecluster is a hotbed of West African manufacturing and creativity. Yet most of the local workshops are wooden shacks without electricity, and the entire community is in danger of collapse—unless the Suame artisans can come up with viable and competitive products, and learn how to repair computerized vehicles. The decline of Suame Magazine is typical of many such manufacturing and repair communities throughout Sub-Saharan Africa.

Having myself undertaken a study attempting to document informal business practices around product development and consumer insights research among the jua kali in Kenya back in August/September 2010 but also attempt to map the learnings for sustainable design & manufacture in the first world given the high degree of sophisticated material re-use, repurpose and recycling that happens in Africa, I was naturally intrigued by their conclusions of decline.

If anything, were McKinsey to ever develop their methodology for their virtuous supply circles that mimic the informal economy’s REculture opportunities, they should map the post consumption materials supply chain that exists behind the resale of an empty PET bottle or repurpose of jamjars into kerosene lamps.

This informal industrial ecosystem, an informal valueweb, if our fieldwork in Kenya back in April is anything to go by, is all about designing makeshift redundancy into all your processes, given the variability in infrastructure of your operating environment and the irregularity of cash flows and amounts. Just in time, on demand, flexible and modular, these artisans are exemplars of lean manufacturing in the most frugal low cost way.

They have no bank accounts for the most part, not until they’re large enough to carry the charges or have begun to employ on salary rather than piecemeal by job or task, and they don’t prefer to take loans for working capital or expansion once the initial founding amount has been arranged. If there is credit or cash advance against payments or work then it is all informal, local and social, arranged between individuals based on their own relationships rather than any hire purchase scheme or low cost loan.

We visited Prof Kamau Gachigi’s Fab Lab at the University of Nairobi and saw some of the really cool stuff members of the lab were doing and the cutting edge equipment like a 300 dollar 3D printer. This got us thinking about the future of the jua kali and where could CNC machines and other computer controlled equipment fit in to the local ecosystem which looked so crude and primitive in its equipment and resources.

“Teapot” Simon who automated an entire home including his teapot to run by an SMS is entirely self taught.
No, the majority would never be electronic geniuses or hacking superstars but that is true of any population anywhere in the world. And those who natural talent drove them towards satisfaction would find their way, just like the makers supported by Emeka’s Maker Faire Africa initiative. While training programs would help with the programming languages required to make your first skillet printing program but once that was done, all the rest would have to do would be to download open source skillet programs. Except for the designer ones which you had to buy. 
Our imagination ran wild with little CNC kiosks set up with the 300 dollar fab lab machines, coordinating designs with named programmers who then sent over the program by mobile phone to the relevant machine. The whole thing should run on the mobile platform, using mobile OS for programming and all the training problems envisioned in Ghana would be solved. 
It would be a merger of the mobile repair industry – under its own pressure ever since the brand name heydays of everlasting Nokia were taken over by the frivolous Birds and Tecno – and the jua kali heavy manufacturing industry (i.e. not quite the little bulb into a kerosene lamp kind of thing). If I recall correctly, Jan Chipchase documented the first case of a dual SIM hack on a home made mobile phone in Accra, Ghana. Its in a rather well known presentation of his called Cultures of Repair, first given at Frogdesign SF I believe. 
That is the same community of people who are being described as unable to leapfrog into modern machinery as quoted in the first paragraph above? 
I’m looking forward to seeing further reports or documentation about this the study and its findings evidenced.

David is a maker; he sees his creations in his dreams

David with his combine harvester, Karantina, Kenya 15 April 2013

David is a maker. An artisan and craftsman who makes furniture as a carpenter in his day job, he’s nonetheless driven by visions of what he sees in his dreams to build these toys made out of scraps of wood, metal and plastic. That green combine harvester is coming home with me.