Centre for African Studies (LUCAS)

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Richard Borowski
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Jua Kali Kenya: Change And Development In An Informal Economy 1970-95

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Jua Kali Kenya: Change And Development In An Informal Economy 1970-95. By Kenneth King. London: James Currey, Nairobi: EAEP & Athens: Ohio State U.P., 1996, pp.xx+236 (+ ill.), £14.95.

Under the ‘hot sun’ (jua kali in Swahili) Kenya’s ‘informal’ sector has survived and at times been thriving since independence despite periodic government harassment. This book based on the author’s work in Kenya over a 20 year period (see his earlier work The African Artisan, London: Heinemann, 1977.) is a timely addition to a growing body of literature on the ‘informal’ sector which has been given a new lease of life under the market oriented adjustment programmes. In Kenya the World Bank channelled loans to the jua kali operators through their associations and made the improvement irxjua kali s operating environment part of its conditionality of providing financial support to the government of Kenya. Some of the Bank’s conditions go to the heart of the problems of the informal sector in almost all developing countries – the issue of secure work sites and access to appropriate infrastructure. In the words of the author “in seeking to address this issue of security of tenure, the Bank is entering one of the single most politicized areas of Kenya life – access to title.” (37) This is a recurring theme that can explain the government’s attitude to the ‘informal sector’: so long as the activities of the ‘informal sector’ did not come into conflict with the interest of powerful urban bourgeoisie its activities were tolerated or given limited support even if such support was initiated by ‘random’ events like that of President Moi stopping off at one of the informal sector sites near Nairobi on his way back from an official visit. It was on this site under the blazing sun that he coined the term jua kali in 1985. But as soon as ‘informal sector’ sites got in the way of urban land speculators the might of the law would come into play under the guise of slum clearance. In 1990 police and earth moving equipment moved in to clear squatters and jua kali operators from the land around Machakos bus stop. It is alleged that, four years later, the same land had been secretly sold to influential politicians (33) – a well established practice through which those holding public office would use their position to accumulate wealth, at the expense of jua kalis in this case.

King provides a valuable historical account of the evolution of the informal sector in Kenya since independence and argues that a large part of the black African jua kali activities (eg. Tin lamp making) have their origins in the Indian (a term also used in Swahili – wahindi – and should be read as Asian) craft communities, which offered apprenticeships and entrepreneurial training for the future generation of informal sector operators. Such links have continued in recent times (see chapter three) and have expanded into other areas, especially trade whereby the Indian traders have proved an important source of income and finance. The Indian hardware stores place large ordersand pay on time. This is the jua kalis’ view of their relationship with the Indian traders and is in contrast to that of individual officials and some consumers who believe that the Indian traders overcharge for what can be bought directly from jua kalis.

The author also shows that the informal sector is far from an homogenous mass in terms of its income generating opportunities. For example, since the 1970s large disparities have emerged between the income of different activities – the metal workers, on average, earn much more than the candle makers. The book is written from the vantage point of an educationalist which is both its source of strength and its weakness. In a number of chapters the emphasis is on training, education and skill acquisition within the informal sector over time, a much neglected area in economic studies of the informal sector. But the broader macroeconomic linkages between the informal sector and the rest of the economy are not explored, except through trade links. However, in credit to the author, he does mention the need for a national industrial strategy which should integrate the potential of the Indian industrial sector and the informal sector. It is clear that without such a policy and the development of a diversified and growing modern industrial sector theywa kali will not be able to prosper further. I also share the author’s criticism of the ILO which states that ‘in Africa informal sectors are still dominated by low-productivity survival activities/ (ILO, 1995, World Employment 1995: An ILO Report, ILO, Geneva.), while acknowledging that ‘the informal sector not only consists of dead-end survival activities but also small-scale activities with potential for growth and technical upgrading’ (Ibid.) This book clearly demonstrates that the informal sector is alive and kicking in Africa but its fate and progress cannot and should not be separated from the fate of the modern sector and the global economy. The closing paragraph summarises this neatly:

‘The barriers to their [jua kali] further development are many, and several of these barriers are quite out of their control, like the world prices for primary products such as coffee and tea. Perhaps we should end by looking back at one of the most salient images of all in our study of the Kenyan jua kali – the entire coffee grading assembly sitting rusting in the backyard of one of our Gikomba producers since the coffee farmer who ordered it could not afford to buy it. A testimony to the creativity of the jua kali but a reminder that they may be ultimately very dependent on fairer government and world prices for coffee.” (204-5)

Reviewed by: Mahmood Messkoub, University of Leeds

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin, 61 (1996), pp. 62-63]

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