If you lost your job today, or failed to find a place in your dream profession, what would your fall-back plan be?
What practical skills do you have besides those related to your career?
With the job market shrinking by the day and unemployment swelling, the focus is shifting to technical training.
The government is promoting vocational training by setting up centres that offer craftsmanship in different dimensions, the aim to spur self-employment among the youth.
These Kenyans studied short vocational courses, either by conscious decision or by happenstance.
Armed with their different crafts, today they are running profitable businesses that, besides employing them fulltime, have created employment for tens of other young people.
MUTHONI NGUGI, 24
I am passionate about interior décor. I have a certificate in interior architecture from Rebecca Thompsons Designs.
I studied this course online for six months in 2015 after dropping out of university due to lack of school fees.
Had it not been for this, I wouldn’t have taken this course. For many years, Kenyans have had to pay outrageous amounts of money to import furniture or to buy imported ones.
I thought that with the carpentry skills available locally, we could design the same quality furniture here and sell it at affordable prices.
Armed with this technical expertise, a little capital and hope, I started Gaze Furnishings in 2017.
I would hire a carpenter on a need basis to produce a few units of furniture which I would then sell to friends.
My specialties include choosing the right fittings, high-end furniture and décor, floors, wall texture and lighting.
I sketch and design different types of furniture and other interior fittings depending with what the client specifies.
When a client contracts me to decorate their house, I visualise how the space will look like once it is complete and fully furnished.
I then put the idea down on paper in form of a sketch and translate the concept into a digital format. To do this, I use software such as Roomsketcher, Render and Planner 5D.
My business has expanded to now have a workshop, a showroom and an office. I have 10 carpenters employed permanently, five on contract, two employees at the showroom, one office staff and a digital marketer.
One of my key areas of focus has been to have a strong digital presence. I get most of my clients online.
Every week I make between Sh80,000 and Sh100,000 from sale of furniture. Besides this business, I do décor consultation on the side, which earns me additional income.
On a good month, I am able to make up to Sh2 million.
Being self-employed has been liberating. My job allows me to set my own targets and to spend my time productively.
To see to it that everything fits within my plan, sometimes I work up to 2am. I don’t have to wake up early to go to work because I have people taking care of the affairs of the business in my absence.
Décor is a very fluid area. With new inventions every day, designs keep changing, as such, I have to research on a daily basis, to be up to speed with the trends that suit market needs.
Clients in this type of business are also very precise in their preferences. They demand nothing short of high quality services and products, which keeps you on your toes all the time.
Upskilling is a continuous process. There is no end to learning new techniques. As an entrepreneur, I endeavour to learn a new skill every day to nourish my soul, which also helps me to be innovative.
I have since gone back to the University of Nairobi to finish my degree in finance. My skills in finance have been handy in running my business profitably.
A business owner who has been formally trained is able to operate professionally, which gives them an edge over competitors.
Juggling my studies with this job is quite easy for me. Initially, it was easier to work and attend lectures fulltime, but when my business grew and the workload increased, I had to switch to part-time studies.
I work all week and attend my classes on Saturdays.
It is hard to imagine that I would graduate and land a job that would pay me as much as this business does.
JAPHETH MWANZI, 36 AUTOMOTIVE ENGINEER
I studied automotive engineering at Nairobi Technical Training Institute and graduated with a diploma in 2009.
I have a workshop in Nairobi West, where I deal in various motor vehicle services such as wiring, vehicle diagnosis, chip tuning and ECU mapping.
My other key specialties include vehicle electronic unit, electronic brakes calibration and vehicle diagnosis.
The training I attained at the technical school was very practical in nature. Skills such as technical drawing are requisite during vehicle modification and in mechanical fitting.
To create and configure vehicle memory graph, numerous calculations are required.
Everything else I have learnt in school has applied in one way or the other.
The training package incorporated communication and presentation skills too. These have made it easier for me to relate with my clients and other people in my business.
Additionally, organisational skills are necessary to run a busy workshop. Competition from other technicians is very high in the motor vehicle repair industry.
For an experienced technician though, your credibility is the best tool of trade. From my expertise, I am able to carry out some of the most delicate repairs in the industry.
Most car owners are conscious of who handles their vehicle. You must build a strong rapport with your clientele to run a successful business.
It is from this established niche that I have built a strong clientele base for customers who require complicated operations using special diagnostics for each vehicle.
To get my job up and running, I had to conduct thorough research. Most of the car repairs and maintenance works are easy to find because many mechanics perform them.
Good money though is found in the ability to perform highly specialised works. Other mechanics occasionally consult me in areas that are beyond their scope of knowledge, which means more income for me.
Along the way, I have appreciated the power of self-employment.
Besides attaining financial freedom, being your own boss forces you to keep pushing boundaries and tinkering with different ideas to have a competitive edge in a flooded market.
This promotes a culture of innovativeness. As a way of giving back to the society and to perpetuate these specialised skills, I am offering training to young people who want to venture into this area.
So far I have trained 60 students who have worked at my workshop as part of their internship.
ALEX ODUNDO, 38
I studied a diploma in metalwork at Kisumu National Polytechnic. Upon graduation, I opened a workshop at Kibuye Market in Kisumu where I fabricate all types of machines including simple ones for domestic use.
The most successful machine that I have made so far is the sisal decorticator. This machine is used to strip the bark of sisal during the sisal rope-making process.
Besides this machine, I have manufactured a cycle water pump, a solar water pump, an eco-power stove and a briquette making machine.
I love to experiment with different ideas and to make practical tools. As an innovator, I am very invested in machines, so whenever I spot the need for a machine that would help to solve a problem, it gets me in my creative mode. I perceive and interpret the world around me in terms of machines.
After finishing my course at Kisumu Polytechnic, I did not train afresh. I went straight into business.
If I had the opportunity though, I would have acquired more skills. The only time I have been unemployed is immediately after I finished Form Four, just before I enrolled for this course.
The main challenge in this craft is unavailability of machines required for mass production. Those that are available locally are expensive and sometimes of poor quality.
Capital to upscale the business is also not easy to raise. Our main customers are small-scale farmers and households, as such, our income keeps fluctuating, and to attain growth, you have to sacrifice a lot.
I am happy to be self-employed. This far, I do not expect to ever be on someone’s payroll. This job enables me to comfortably fulfil my family’s needs.
I have also been able to buy a piece of land for my family. When I started out, I just wanted to create a job for myself.
Today, I have created jobs for eight other young men who work with me at my workshop. All of them are on full monthly pay.
Through my innovation I have received several awards. In 2012, I was named a TED Fellow. These recognitions have connected me to the world and enabled me to have a footprint outside my locale.
Additionally, I have expanded my business and bought other more advanced machines to help me in my work.
SHARON WENDO, 27
I was among the beneficiaries of the government training programme called Kenya Youth Empowerment Project (Kazi kwa Vijana) in 2014.
The programme sought to increase access to youth-targeted temporary employment programmes and to improve youth employability through labour-intensive projects and social services.
I applied for the course online and was selected. The training was based at Kabete Technical College and had different phases, including life skills, entrepreneurship and later internship.
During this three-month training, I learnt how to bead.
Once I completed the course and got a certificate however, I did not know what to do with these skills.
I even got a job as a receptionist at a private ECDE school in Nairobi, but the job was not satisfying enough and boredom soon set in. I would design and make jewels, but only as a pastime. After only three months on the job, I resigned.
Suddenly jobless and without an income, I needed money to get by. Beading on fulltime business was, therefore, an easy decision for me. I create African jewellery using beads, wool and different fabrics. The start was sluggish and the income little. With time though, my fortunes changed and more clients came on board. I am inspired by Africa as a whole, our different cultures and colour and fabric diversities. This allows me to explore by blending colour schemes and fabrics to come up with Afrocentric jewellery designs.
That said, tastes and preferences are very distinct among jewellery enthusiasts, which makes this type of business very delicate.
Most of the time I am guided by customers’ specifications while working on different pieces. I sell exclusively to online clients on Facebook (Epic African Jewellery) and on Instagram (@epicjewellery).
From these customers, I get business referrals. This is how I have been able to build a consistent clientele base. A Kenyan friend in the US facilitates sales there.
I haven’t had any training in a practical area besides my internship during the training.
I would say the opportunity from the government was a game-changer for me because from this I am now able to pay my bills and to take care of my other needs.
With time, I hope to upskill and diversify my creations. I am also raising money to enrol in design school.
My dream was to study engineering after high school, but I fell short of the required cut-off points for a university degree in engineering. I did not give up on my dream though.
I met a friend who owned a workshop in Yala, Kisumu County. He trained me in different areas of engineering.
I have, therefore, not had any formal training in this area. Through training and my curiosity in machines, I have polished the skills I acquired to become an engineer of sorts.
I have conducted extensive research by watching engineering documentaries, reading books and journals and also experimented with different ideas to become a creator.
I see myself as a creative in the field of electronic, mechanical and construction engineering.
Some of the projects I have done over the years include electronic voting machine (2012), power backups, security systems, LED-based lighting systems and LED billboards.
I also manufacture concrete block-making machines.
This job is my mainstay. I am also able to take care of my parents. Besides this, I have trained several young people who are now machine technicians and operators and who now work with me fulltime.
During the production process, I get to hire more young people on contract basis.
Most of my customers are individuals interested in supplying the local construction industry with reliable building materials.
Based on my experiences, making it in this informal sector requires grit and lots of sacrifice.
The government ought to come up with structures where start-ups with practical inventions are supported and helped to move from prototypes to fully working designs which can then be rolled out into the market on a large scale.
Does this job allow me to be innovative? I could never think of anything else that would give me the leeway to invent as much as my work does.
Through the defects of each design, I get to try out entirely different ideas, which translates to more powerful machines with better applicability.
The proudest achievement for me as a creator is to have other people earn a living from my creativity.
That I am able to design and create practical machines gives me pride.
There is quality workmanship in Kenya. While it is often argued that local products are more expensive than imports, with the right support, locally made goods with similar features and equally effective as imports would be cheaper since they are manufactured using locally available materials.