PKG Fellowships: Ben Hoyle (G), Part III
Ben Hoyle completed his Master of Architecture at MIT in June of 2021. During the summer, he laid the groundwork for Kivuli, a social enterprise he co-founded in Nairobi, which is focused on supporting workers in the informal “Jua Kali” manufacturing sector by connecting them to the local construction industry. In collaboration with his local partners, Ben started the process of developing a new window product that will help bridge the informal and formal sectors. He will continue this product development phase through the end of 2021.
For this post I’ll dive briefly into some of the factors at play for artisans fabricating steel goods in Nairobi. Understanding their current conditions in depth has been essential as we plan for how best to serve their needs. Ultimately, Jua Kali artisans work within a precarious informal economy, where success depends significantly on adaptability.
I’ll outline some of what we’ve learned from Joseph Githiga, who is one of our Jua Kali collaborators in the local manufacturing industry. His workshop is on the roadside in a district of Nairobi called Lucky Summer, about 30 minutes from the city center. Joseph has extensive fabrication experience, owns two arc welders and a number of other basic tools, and depending on demand for his work, he employs up to three younger and lower skilled artisans from the neighborhood.
On a recent afternoon we asked Joseph to teach us how he makes steel windows, and he stocked up on supplies in order to walk us through the process. It was a fascinating work session, and here are a few key takeaways. First, the price of raw materials (steal rods of various profiles) is hugely variable. The pandemic was particularly disruptive, and in some cases increased the price of steel by more than 50% over the previous year. Joseph’s clients for small orders are often dubious of the significant markups this requires him to put on his prices. His workaround is to have them buy raw materials, so that that they know exactly what they’re paying for in labor vs. materials. But this comes with its own logistical constraints and inefficiencies.
A second point is a better understanding of the margins Joseph gets from each window. The 3’x4’ casement design he worked through with us, for instance, goes for Ksh 6,000 (about $60), and the raw materials he uses cost Ksh 5,000. It takes him about one day to build, and after overhead costs he’s left with a remarkably small profit relative to the total cost of the window. He prefers working on curtain rods, where the raw materials only cost him about Ksh 400, and he charges about Ksh 1,500.
Lastly, we learned of the immensely wide-ranging designs for steel windows available from Jua Kali artisans. Some designs for the same sized window use twice as much material as others, and an artisan can finish a window with any of many different types of hinges, handlebars and window stays. Moreover there are no standard window opening sizes in buildings, such that even the overall size of artisans’ windows are completely open ended.
It’s been striking to realize how the combination of variable material costs, low profit margins, and lacking standardization makes it all the more important that Jua Kali be able to negotiate prices for their goods. Were the market to normalize the cost of a product (as Uber has done for local taxi fares), artisans would be vulnerable to conditions that could quickly eat up their already meagre margins. This will be critical to keep in mind once Kivuli starts to negotiate larger scale contracts for artisans.
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