Jua Kali in Kisumu

History, Opportunities, and Challenges

The jua kali sector can be found almost all over the major estates of Kisumu, from Kondele to Nyalenda to Nyamasaria, and from Obunga to Nyawita to Dunga Beach. Members of this sector can be found selling their wares on the smallest and the busiest streets of the city, from the Ojijo Oteko Road to Achieng’ Oneko Road, and from Oginga Odinga Road to the Nairobi-Kisumu Highway. They are especially prevalent in the Kibuye Market, one of East Africa's largest outdoor marketplaces. They sell their products and skills at a price many can afford. Some work in jua kali textile sector selling new and used/secondhand clothes; some are mechanics repairing motor vehicles or bicycles; others are cobblers repairing shoes; others are food vendors selling all types of food to thirsty and hungry patrons. Jua kali workers also include furniture makers producing fine furniture products cheaply, tailors repairing old clothes and making new ones, welders who produce fences, gates, and other metal works, and artists selling wares to patrons.

There are many definitions of the term “jua kali.” In fact, the term “jua kali” does not necessarily refer to a person, even though it can be used loosely as such. Instead, and more accurately, the term refers to informal work or services that people perform to earn a living. The term “jua kali” derives from Kiswahili. The word “jua” means the “sun,” and “kali” means “hot” or “fierce,” hence the “hot or fierce sun.” “Jua kali” seems to have been coined during the colonial period, referring to small-scale dealings that school dropouts, the unemployed, the under-employed, and the poor, who had failed to get absorbed in the formal colonial economic sector, engaged in while literally sitting or camping out in market places or outside buildings exposed to the elements. Constantly exposed to perilous conditions, these small-scale businesses were jokingly referred to by people as “jua kali,” and the people engaged with them as “jua kali people.” In some cases, however, the term was used pejoratively to refer to the odd jobs performed by the “uneducated” and the “unemployed,” by those who had failed to continue with formal education, failed to get white-collar jobs, and had consequently been forced to survive on the margins of society: the poor, underclass of society.

Nevertheless, the “jua kali” sector continued to grow in scale and importance even after independence was achieved by Kenya in 1963. Unable to find meaningful means of livelihood apart from the largely corrupt, incompetent, and ineffectual independent governments, many disappointed and unemployed African people ended up seeking survival in the “jua kali” sector. By the 1970s, the number of Africans in the “jua kali” sector numbered in the millions. Without adequate funds, proper skills, and a suitable labor network, many people joined the “jua kali” sector they had previously ridiculed.

The sector continued to grow in response to economic stagnation wrought by the austerity measures taken under the Structural Adjustment Program (SAP) loan packages issued to struggling sub-Saharan African governments in the 1980s by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank. Such measures forced hundreds of thousands of retrenched government employees into the “jua kali” sector to try and eke out a living.

Those who survived the transition from formal employment in the government sector to the informal jua kali sector started embracing and even bragging about their success. They started becoming proud of their accomplishments. The jua kali occupation became a badge of honor. Most governments in Africa in general, and Kenya in particular started embracing the jua kali sector, and even started extolling its advantages to the masses. According to government officials, the sector offered an alternative means of survival for many people. Jua kali helped keep people out of trouble and hence reduced crimes; it provided people with a sense of purpose and meaning in their lives; it reduced political pressure on the government to provide jobs and services to the people; and it earned the government extra revenue in the form of taxes paid by the jua kali workers and foreign exchange earned through exportation of jua kali products.

Like government officials, scholars began referring to “jua kali” using positive terms such as the “self-employed entrepreneurs,” “the jua kali industry,” “the informal business sector,” and the like. The self-employed “jua kali” entrepreneurs were now seen as hard-working men and women engaged in meaningful occupations, selling either a specific product or a specific skill in exchange for money in order to survive in a very tough economic environment. In a book titled Jua Kali Kenya, Kenneth King examines the evolution of the jua kali informal sector and observes how, “traditionally it had either been neglected or even actively harassed by the national government or the municipal authorities" (King, xiii). King then looks at meetings and conferences on the “jua kali” sector organized by the Kenyan government and how those meetings and conferences gradually led to the governmental acceptance of the “jua kali” sector (King, 11). In 1971, for example, a meeting organized by “The Comprehensive Employment Strategy Mission” in Kenya helped to dramatize the concept and nature of the informal sector” (King, 6). After that meeting, people began to push for the recognition of the jua kali sector recognized and that its struggles should be taken seriously by the government.

While not everybody recognized the jua kali industry as part of the formal sector, nearly all understood that it was an outlet for those wishing to make money while “doing something they love.” The acceptance and recognition of the “jua kali” sector by the government was important in its evolution because, according to King, it enabled the jua kali sector get support and financial aid from the government that could help boost business. By the 1990s, the jua kali sector had become fully embraced by many people in the society. The jua kali workers were described as fearless, valiant, proud, and skillful. Activists and scholars carefully identified and chronicled the workers’ experiences: the traders and hawkers; the mechanics, spare-parts dealers, metal-beaters, craftsmen, service-repairmen, and artists. Each one was said to have a “different set of skills” and “each was trying to make a living doing something [he/she] enjoyed.” Sociologist Margaretta Swigert-Gacheru views “jua kali ingenuity as the way artists, living on a shoestring, use their imagination to create works of art that display their originality, adaptability, resourcefulness and improvisational style of ‘makeshift creativity’” (Swigert-Gacheru, 129).

Many residents of Kisumu engage in or know someone engaged in the jua kali business. Through jua kali, these people earn a living, pay for basic needs, make ends meet, take their children to school, and even thrive. There are personal stories of men and women in the jua kali sector in Kisumu who have educated their children to college level and their children have gone on to be successful in life as a result.

The Kisumu County government has begun emphasizing on the importance of the jua kali sector to the Kisumu economy. Recently, as reported in Kisumu News, Rose Nyamungu, the “Kisumu Women’s Representative to the Kisumu County Assembly began a series of consultative meetings with stakeholders “on the Economic Development projects” that were aimed at empowering the Kisumu County residents economically” (Kisumu News, October 13, 2015).

What makes these meetings so significant is that Rose Nyamungu even sought out and met with “leaders from the informal sector … and … jua kali leaders to iron out the issue of how these sectors could be improved through capitalization.” In other words, the Kisumu County government, in general, and Rose Nyamungu, in particular, are demonstrating how important the jua kali informal sector is by including it in the discussions of economic development of Kisumu. This is not just a demonstration of the recognition of the jua kali business, but also a deliberate attempt by the Kisumu County government to include the jua kali sector in its economic plans.

Yet, in spite of this recognition, the jua kali sector continues to face challenges. One of the major issues facing the jua kali workers is the high tax imposed by the government. Jua kali workers are required to pay taxes whether or not they make money from their work. Along with paying high taxes, jua kali workers suffer poor working conditions. Their work is usually done in poorly built iron-and-wood workshops. In fact, most jua kali workers do not even have workshops to begin with—as mentioned earlier, the term “jua kali” refers to those working exposed to the elements. Without proper working conditions, jua kali businesses are usually prone to damage from fire and floods.

Another major problem facing the jua kali industry, especially business operators at the Kibuye open-air market on the Kisumu-Kakamega highway, are constant fire outbreaks destroying merchandise worth millions of shillings. In an article in the East African Standard newspaper, January 15, 2015, Anne Agwata, Jennipher Igena and Emmanuel Odia assert that fires are not new at Kibuye. The writers of the article observe that “Kibuye market has been recording a number of fire incidences (sic) with the most affected parts being the carpentry and the clothes section … residents attribute this to the congestion of business premises in the market.” According to the writers, a recent inferno at the Kibuye Market “started from a hotel kitchen and spread to adjacent shops. Most of the kiosks were wooden while some were made of iron sheets making the first to spread faster.” There is no system in place to stop fire from breaking out, or extinguishing it when it breaks out, yet local authorities never hesitate from collecting taxes from jua kali businesses.

Jua kali workers also endure harassment by more well-connected, powerful business rivals. They are not very united in the face of such harassments. In a recent article appearing in the East African Standard of December 11, 2014, Protus Onyango observed how a certain group of “fake mechanics” were arrested “by their genuine counterparts, with some of them being frog-marched to Central Police Station and prosecuted.” Onyango also observes in the same piece that a group of some 250 jua kali workers had been relocated because they “occupied a piece of land owned by a businessman within Kisumu city’s central business district.”

While the jua kali has been accepted by most of society, including the government, it continues, ironically, to suffer from a shortage of financial support from the same government that has embraced it. Many jua kali businesspeople lack adequate capital to start and run their businesses. Consequently, many businesses struggle to survive, some even end up dying.

Although there has been a lot of progress made in recognizing the role of the jua kali sector in the social, economic, and political well-being of the society, there is a need for the government to translate that recognition into real support. In particular, the jua kali sector deserves more financial aid. Jevans N. Miyungu observed recently how “trade experts” called “upon the government to introduce incentives to encourage informal traders” (Jevans N. Miyungu, East African Standard, May 16, 2015).

The reality is that the jua kali industry has become an integral part of the Kenyan, as well as the Kisumu, economy. It is no longer a marginal activity patronized by the poor and the underclass. It has become fully embraced by every segment of society. Many educated men and women have ventured into it, and there are countless reports of enterprising men and women who have thrived and even become rich in the sector. The society and the economy have benefited from the industry. This is a sector that can no longer be ignored by anyone in Kisumu.