Last Thursday, government spokesman Col(Rtd) Cyrus Oguna held a press briefing at the site of the first affordable housing project along Park Road, Nairobi. As expected, senior government bureaucrats were in tow.
One man, however, stood out from the small team that had assembled around Oguna. Joseph Muhia stood behind the retired military man like a sentry.
In an orange reflector jacket, he looked no different from the hundreds of workers at the site where the first block of 228 houses out of 1,370 houses are earmarked for handover by October this year.
Muhia is the head of an outfit known as Ngokamka, an acronym for Ngong Road, Kamukunji and Kariobangi Jua Kali associations. This is one of the informal groups brought on board by the government to complement the services of the Chinese contractor.
The Jua Kali sector is expected to forge most of the metal and wooden fixtures such as a doors and windows in a deal that will see them pocket Sh120 million. The entire cost of the Park Road project is Sh5 billion.
It was not lost on the assembled guests that Muhia was one of only two individuals who spoke at the function, underscoring the weight he carries within the projects.
“Jua Kali is in this project to stay,” he said. “This will change the way Kenyans view the sector.”
When he talked of a “changed viewpoint,” Muhia knows exactly what the public thinks of the industry.
Like the chaotic matatu industry, the Jua Kali sector has been the butt of Kenyans’ jokes, with the sector viewed as the most rudimentary as far as industrialization is concerned. To many Kenyans, this is where the “jobless” end up, toiling and sweating as they batter old metal plates into shape.
With industrialization forming a key cog in President Uhuru Kenyatta’s Big Four Agenda, many dismissed the sector and gave it a wide berth. Not anymore.
In an interview with Home & Away, Muhia talked of how the industry is slowly commanding respect and attracting the attention of the financial sector “that never knew we existed.”
“The local financial sector was never interested in our activities. We were like the black sheep in the economy. We got what was left over after the others have had their cut. It is different now as the banks come looking for us because they can see the magnitude of these projects,” says Muhia.
Oguna said the Jua Kali sector is part of the government’s plan to create economic opportunities in the country.
“The government has ring-fenced 67 construction related items that must be procured locally. 70 per cent of all construction materials must be sourced locally. Additionally, the Park Road project has created 650 direct job opportunities for artisans, masons, plumbers, electricians, painters and many other trades as well as thousands of indirect jobs,” he said.
Speaking at a housing forum at a Nairobi hotel recently, Principal Secretary at the Department of Housing and Urban Infrastructure Charles Hinga said involving the Jua Kali sector would standardize the products rather than have different entities involved in the fabrication of doors or windows.
Already, the ministry has published a manual that contains the standards and specifications required for items procured from the Jua Kali sector.
Hinga said the creation of jobs within the projects underlines the transformative nature of the affordable housing initiative. He too foresaw a time when local banks will come calling on the informal sector that has already aligned itself to the government’s housing agenda.
“Jua Kali has joined the mainstream economy and anybody ignoring them does so at his own peril. What the sector needs to do now is set up proper structures of engagement,” said Hinga.
Despite the newfound relationship between Jua Kali and the formal sector, Muhia is worried that unscrupulous people might upset the apple cart. He is warier of shrewd business people who masquerade as “more Jua Kali than we are.”
“There is the danger of ‘Jua Kali’ contractors forming a myriad of companies that will rob us of business. These are like vultures waiting on the sidelines to join in the feast they contributed nothing to procure and will end up benefiting the Chinese informal sector. It is true that we need to build capacity such as the procurement of modern machinery. But we must start somewhere and this housing project is just a beginning,” said Muhia.
Muhia joined the sector in 1991 and is among furniture dealers along Ngong Road who have been given notice to vacate the area as the government expands the road. He has no regrets joining the sector that has seen him educate his children, some to university level.
The first project along Park Road is a learning curve to him and his fellow artisans: “Count us to be in all the other projects.”