The jua kali sector – a safe haven for jobs in Kenya

The words “jua kali” are a direct translation for “hot sun” in Swahili. They also refer to an informal sector in Kenya comprising of informal traders and artisans, who often work out by the roadside (in the hot sun), and are renowned for their ability to create almost anything on demand.

Let’s say you wanted some equipment for your new kitchen. Rather than going to a supermarket or a home appliance shop, you can visit a jua kali market and you will find quality, yet cheap products, custom made for you according to your imagination. Almost anything can be made from scratch – even complex equipment such as multi-purpose ovens. And they all come with warranties to help calm any doubts.

Patrick Kenyi, co-founder of the online platform Jua Kali Products thinks that the artisans do not get the credit they deserve. “I have never seen a marketplace where you can just walk in, place an order for something that only exists in your mind, and it gets fulfilled within a few days. Our job is to make it easy for consumers to buy such customised products online. The artisans truly deserve a lot more for their creativity and hard work.”

The sector has recently transformed into a safe haven for many young people who have been affected by the unemployment crisis in the country. Unlike formal employment, it is relatively easy to get into the jua kali market as a trader. There is no need for lengthy application processes; only some curiosity and the tutorage of an experienced artisan. You learn through observation and practice.

Jonathan Mbugua, an artisan based in Nairobi says: “I spent six months after college trying to find a job. I cannot even remember how many applications I submitted, maybe a hundred. My uncle introduced me to the industry in 2015 and I am very grateful because I get to apply my creativity every day. I only specialise in making popcorn machines for now, but I will learn more things with time. It’s very easy to grow.”

The sector contributes immensely towards the Kenyan economy. A survey done in 2014 showed that up to 80% of the 800,000 jobs created were in the informal sector – many being in jua kali specifically. Kenyans would be unwise not to support its evolution since it has rescued many young people from the dark side of unemployment.