Posts Tagged ‘informal manufacturing’

Economic ecosystems tie the fortunes of informal sector to health of formal business

The story of Ghana’s “pillow city”, Juapong – a small town in the North Tongu District in the Volta region, offers us insight on the inter-relationship between formal industries and the ecosystem of informal businesses that spring up around them.

Juapong is said to be losing its identity as the pillow capital of Ghana.

A few years ago, a common feature on the main road leading to Juapong from the Adomi Bridge was the display of beautiful assorted pillows. Local women depended on waste cotton or materials from the textile factories to produce pillows and mattresses. Today, cheap imports from China have affected Ghana’s textile production.

The Chief Executive of Margico Enterprise, Auntie Margaret Okyere, who sells pillows on wholesale, lamented that the pillow business has collapsed. Madam Okyere took over the trade from her mother in 1991 and had trained several women to make pillows.

She revealed that the business was one of the lucrative ventures in Ghana and recounted how in the glory days of the business, traders from Tema, Accra, Kumasi, Koforidua, Tamale and Togo travelled to Juapong to buy pillows in large quantities. That, she said, enabled them to make a lot of income to support their families.

Madam Okyere, who was making a few pillows to feed her shelf with the help of one of her workers, said fortunes in the trade had dropped because the raw materials were no longer available.

“Previously, if you came to this town, you would find pillows arranged beautifully all over and it created a lot of jobs for the youth. We even supplied some hospitals as well. I did not make less than GH¢300 profit a day,” she said.

And its not just the women who make and trade in pillows feeling the effects, the young men who helped load and distribute the pillows are leaving town in droves to look for work. An entire ecosystem has felt the impact of that butterfly’s wing out flapping on the other side of the world. Industries benefit far more people than just those employed at the factory directly.

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.

Grassroots innovators and the “build-test-learn” loop


Afrigadgeteers exemplify the customer centric principles of such high tech processes as the Lean Startup (r) method, or so it emerged from an insightful conversation with my Tallinn based friend Siim Esko recently, on Skype of course.

He made the connection between the need to experiment and test prototypes for market viability – rapidly and cheaply and the ‘product development’ habits of makers and creators who innovate under conditions of scarce resources such as those covered in Afrigadget, REculture or Makeshift magazine.

His insight struck me like a ton of bricks, if I may say so with little exaggeration and I’m sharing it here as food for further observations and thought. I already have a trip planned into rural Western Kenya on Monday, so now that my eyes have been opened, I’d rather ponder this further and write again in greater depth when I have some evidence to support this hypothesis. In the meantime, what do you all think?