2020’s false hope for Jua Kali artisans as 2021 turns into pain

Meshack Odhiambo Otieno, a Juja based welder during an interview with The Standard. [David Njaaga, Standard]

Outside Beba Beba Trade Centre, along Tom Mboya Street, Nairobi, hundreds of commuters queue, hoping the next bus to Kasarani’s Mwiki will not be that long. It is around seven o’clock in the evening, and panic is setting in. Curfew begins in an hour.

These scenes were last experienced early last year when the night curfew started at seven in the evening. Still, there is a palpable difference.

Back then, bus conductors were armed with sanitisers, and every passenger had to get their hands sprayed with a pint of alcohol before boarding. There was also a handwashing station, where every passenger stopped for a few seconds.

Now all that is gone, at a time when the pandemic has hit harder, with a positivity that reached 26.6 per cent at one point in March. Handwashing has been abandoned, as have sanitisation of hands and surfaces, and so to social distancing.

Sanitisation booths have too disappeared. Not everyone wears masks now.

The pandemic came in March 2020, but then, an unlikely opportunity had appeared for the Jua Kali industry. Among the measures taken to prevent the rapid spread of Covid-19 was regular handwashing, with soap and running water.

A competition began almost immediately, with artisans fabricating innovative handwashing stations, which were planted in several public spaces. Some even started distributing homemade sanitisers. And tailors flooded markets with cloth masks too.

As the pandemic became more pronounced, innovative artisans even came up with hospital beds that gained them fame and recognition as well as meetings with some top government officials.

Mungai Gathogo and Joseph Kamau, from Kiambu, ventured into the manufacture of hospital beds for the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) and High Dependency Unit (HDU), hoping to rid Kenya of the rigours of importing such beds.

Their model bed was a high-end multipurpose one, complete with heavy-duty wheels, a drip stand, a table for patients’ meals, spice for an oxygen tank and hideaway bed rails.

And the government put other artisans on the task of manufacturing school desks ahead of reopening of schools. It looked like a new dawn for the artisans.

But after months, the euphoria died, and with it were the famous Jua Kali projects aimed at mitigating the pandemic.

“The intention to have the Jua Kali manufacture these items was good. It was putting a lot of people into the earners’ bracket. But it was a poorly coordinated scheme,” says the Kenya National Federation of Jua Kali Association (KNFJKA) Chief Executive Richard Muteti.

In the end, as caution was thrown to the wind, a lot of these innovations ran into disuse.

The Nairobi Central Business District remains littered with handwashing stations that no one looks at twice. And some of those who were making desks with the hope that the government would buy them have been left to hawk their wooden ‘gold’ elsewhere.

“KNFJKA is the apex body of local small manufacturing, but we were not involved in plans to roll out the manufacture of these products. Desktop studies were used to commission production. In the end, there were many brokerages and so little money trickled down to artisans,” says Mr Muteti.

Dean Achesa became an instant sensation when President Uhuru Kenyatta sat on one of the desks he made at his Umoja hardware. The President was launching the Sh1.9 billion school furniture project that was to see artisans supply 650,000 locally assembled desks.

Besides equipping secondary and primary schools, the project was part of the government’s post-Covid-19 economic stimulus programme aimed at boosting the Jua Kali sector.

The project was modelled on the Kazi Mtaani youth employment initiative, and Mr Achesa became its face. And while he had success while at it, not everybody has the same tale to tell.

One of the artisans also contracted to supply desks says she made a few supplies and then threw in the towel. The carpenter, who did not give her name for fear of reprisal, says there was “a lot of issues” in the project, and she sold most of the other desks to “individuals”.

“After that, I had a comprehensive exit strategy. I decided to do business the usual way. That was free of the many problems I had in the first few supplies. And 2021 started brightly,” the artisan says.

She now parades the desks and approaches schools to market the products, the hope she had in 2020 evaporating quickly.

Until the announcement of new measures on March 26, 2021, which locked Nairobi, Machakos, Kiambu, Nakuru and Kajiado plus revised curfew hours to eight, things were looking good for business.

Low purchasing power

Mr Achesa says his business has taken a beating with the introduction of the new measures. I was in Kabarnet delivering furniture for a new restaurant just last week. But now the food and hospitality industry is teetering, and the owner of the hotel might just put the furniture away and wait until it opens up,” laments Mr Achesa. Now he cannot move out of the city for any supplies.

The lockdowns have been necessitated by a new coronavirus strain. With a raft of deaths, some of the prominent people, the President locked the parts of the country that were seen as the hotspots.

But unlike what had seemed like a silver lining for artisans, who rushed to make innovations and help the country manage through the pandemic in early 2020, the third wave has brought misery and desolation.

Mr Muteti says that the numbers of informal sector workers in Kenya have spiralled to over 20 million. And this is reducing markets for products amid low purchasing power.

“So many people were laid off from various sectors and the simplest way for them out of employment was joining the Jua Kali sector. Some of them have brought sophisticated methods of advertising and selling.”

In the third quarter of last year, the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics reported that although the employment ratio had improved slightly after a perilous second quarter, the country was still struggling compared to previous years.

The survey revealed that the overall employment to population ratio in the country, for the working-age population, was 63.9 per cent in the third quarter of 2020 compared to 66.1 per cent recorded in the same quarter of 2019.

It had been 57.7 per cent recorded in the second quarter of 2020. And now, the situation looks grim. Mr Muteti says this is the second chance for the government to get it right.

“Hospitals have a shortage of beds. Our textile subsector is now able to make three-ply masks. We have production committees that could liaise with county governments to make sure that the artisans produce goods that the country needs, and of the right quality, and get paid fairly for it. It is a win-win,” says Muteti.

Kenya National Trading Corporation (KNTC), a procurement agent for the government that also promotes wholesale and retail trade to strengthen the supply chain of essential products, could help artisans with value addition.

KNTC promotes the development of micro, small and medium enterprises, markets, expansion and diversification of trade in line with the government policy. Mr Achesa says the Jua Kali industry is hurting. The hope that came with a raft of opportunities in 2020 is no more. People do not know what to manufacture anymore. They do not know where to sell manufactured items.

For him, restrictions of movement in and out of these counties sounds harsh. “Everyone is having it rough, but especially the Jua Kali. We have been working and taking precaution. The people that have caused the upsurge of the cases of Covid-19 are politicians in their rallies,” he says.

Most people in the sector live from hand to mouth, and with earnings depleted, they are now desperately clutching at straws.

But while the pandemic rages, more than in the first wave, the contribution of the informal sector is needed. More masks, more handwashing stations, more personal protective equipment. Why are they not getting good business when they should be overwhelmed with work?

“The President pressed the reset button and we are now back in 2020. All we can do now is hope that when he reopens the counties, the business will return,” says Achesa.

By Denish Osodo 12 mins ago
Internal auditors must respond swiftly to a disrupted world
By Elisha Kamau 12 mins ago
Content piracy is a deceptively deadly face of organised crime
By Peter Theuri 12 mins ago
Embu farmers now jump on cruising Bt cotton bandwagon
Widen tax base for added revenue, accountants tell state