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Jobs are there in Kenya - they just aren’t good enough

By Dominic Omondi | Apr 26th 2016 | 6 min read
By Dominic Omondi | April 26th 2016
They sit all day under the scorching sun, sometimes bare chested, doing little else but pounding.

With every thud of a sledge hammer, their muscles swell, stretching their skin out.

Sweat trickles down their faces, mixing freely with the soot that breaks free once paint-coated metals are heated. Acrid smells surround them.

But these Jua Kali artisans in Nairobi’s Kamukunji carry on working unperturbed by their physical environment. To those looking in, what these artisans do is not work. It looks like torture.

As a result, not many of the jobless millions of youth are eager to get into this kind of career, no matter how desperate they are.

Unfortunately, this kind of work is largely what is available in Kenya.

According to the World Bank, the economy has been creating jobs at an “impressive” rate.

In fact, in its latest Kenya Economic Update report, titled ‘Kazi ni kazi – Informal should not be normal’, between 2006 and 2013, an average of 800,000 jobs were created per year.

Most of these jobs, however, are not the white-collar type young people would want; 80 per cent are in the informal sector.

Urban labour

In Kamukunji, for instance, the number of employees has increased from 370 in 1986 when the area was started as a training ground for artisans. There are now more than 6,000 people, according to Joseph Nyaoro, the secretary general of the Kamukunji Jua Kali Association.

This population has outgrown the space allocated, forcing workers into nearby estates and road reserves, a recipe for conflict.

A World Bank report, however, says this kind of growth is “not enough to make a sizeable dent in unemployment and underemployment”.

Young adults (aged 15-29) currently entering the labour force account for 30 per cent of the Kenyan population, according to Government figures.

In urban labour markets, the World Bank estimates that about two million people aged between 15 and 64 are jobless.

A World Bank economist, while launching a report on youth employment done by Innovation for Poverty Action (IPA), said despite the hue and cry about unemployment in Kenya, almost everyone seems to be doing something to carry them through the day.

They are pulling handcarts, peddling all sorts of goods in traffic and busy markets, or hollering for passengers to board public transport.

But they are surviving, not working.

Most Kenyan workers, the World Bank says, are stuck in such “low productivity jobs and sectors”.

Thus, the GDP per employed person in the country is much lower than that of its African peers, including Ethiopia, Ghana and Burkina Faso.

Mary Thuo is one of the many proprietors in the Jua Kali sector. Her business is one of the less demanding vocations, but it is still hazardous.

We found her sitting outside her small stall that was crammed with metals of all kinds, her attention focused on a cash book. It is where she indicates each transaction.

Hers is not advanced book-keeping, with entries of assets on one side and liabilities on the other. Her cash book has two columns — one carries the customer’s name, the other the amount of money paid for an item.

She said because she sells raw materials, such as wires and metal sheets, most of her customers are from around Kamukunji.

Her two casual employees, whose weekly salary she would not reveal, are busy twisting, flattening, straightening and cutting metals.

They do not have any personal protective equipment on, but Ms Thuo said she provides them with gloves, they just do not like putting them on. The employees said the gloves slow them down.

Polythene papers

We were unable to understand her pronunciation of what it is she does exactly, so she wrote it down: ‘siliting’. No definition of the word was available in a Google search.

However, because she says the metals she sells are used for wrapping, she most likely meant ‘slitting’, which is the process of cutting large rolls of material into narrower rolls.

Her pronunciation of the word is immaterial as Thuo has mastered her work. When a customer showed up, he lifted one of the metal sheets and asked if it would rust. She assured him it would not. She knows her metals.

Thuo started the business in 2008 after she was displaced from her home in the Rift Valley when post-election violence broke out.

She buys her supplies from manufacturing companies. She started out with stock worth Sh40,000. She now values it at more than Sh500,000.

Thuo knows with more capital, she can grow her business. Her biggest worry is money, which she says has never been enough for those who deal with materials.

“Look at this room. Space is a big problem, so much so that I am forced to keep some of the materials outside,” she said.

It rained the day before the interview. Rain to Jua Kali artisans is more a curse than a blessing. For Thuo, not only did it mean closing her stall until the rain stopped, but also fumbling to find something to cover her good to protect them.

Training opportunities

Thuo, who is in her 50s, is also eager for a chance to get some training to run her business better.

For many young people, the realisation that white-collar jobs may not be forthcoming is starting to sink in, and there are those grabbing at opportunities to learn vital skills.

Benta Achieng, 33, hopes to transition from being nothing to something in a few months. She is undertaking a course in hair-dressing at a vocational training institute in Nairobi.

Ms Achieng is one of the 4,000 beneficiaries of KCB Foundation’s flagship programme, 2Jiajiri.

The foundation hopes to upskill people like Thuo and Achieng to make them more productive — which is what Kenya needs.

According to the director of the foundation, Jane Mwangi, her organisation is out to not only fight unemployment, but also “dignify” such back-breaking work as that done by Jua Kali artisans.

“If you skill that housegirl, then you dignify her position. And right there, she demands a better salary,” said Ms Mwangi.

The World Bank’s labour report notes that much of Kenya’s growth has not resulted from the “employed becoming better at what they are doing” but simply by “more of those looking for a job [emphasis added] finding one.”

Achieng, who is a mother of four, hopes that by the time she is done with her six-month course, she will not just find a job, but a decent one that will enable her provide for her family and help her start her own business.

Before KCB Foundation came along, she was washing clothes for her clients to make a living, earning an average of Sh200 a day.

“Some people had different thoughts about why I do what I do, and some men wanted to sleep with me,” she said.

Achieng, who went up to Form One, said once she completes her course, the foundation will offer her a subsidised loan to help her purchase hair-dressing equipment.

She will also get the services of three professional graduates — a lawyer, marketer and accountant — who will work on a pro-bono basis for her.

The three will help Achieng with registering her company, brand management and book-keeping.

“When I finish school and start my own business, I will never go back to washing people’s clothes,” Achieng said.

Trade policy

But she will also need customers to build a successful business, as do entrepreneurs like Thuo.

A few years ago, Jua Kali artisans sold their products to supermarkets but these days, retail outlets are no longer their biggest customers. According to Mr Nyaoro, Chinese products have displaced them.

He said while most of his members in Kamukunji are making spades, those from China that are being preferred for their attractive appearance and low prices.

“Vision 2030 is anchored on the need to industrialise, but we can’t industrialise by bringing in competing products,” he said.

But for Nyaoro and his team to compete with China, they need to move from using manual processes. To do this, they need access to affordable credit to acquire machinery. They also need more space and better skills.

“Of late, the people creating jobs are in the informal sector, but there is not enough money allocated to this sector to improve it,” said Nyaoro.

Further, in an era of globalisation, local Jua Kali workers should be able to export their products.

But for this to happen, the World Bank says, Kenya must put in place a deliberate trade policy that helps such small manufacturers access new markets.

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