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Dagoretti's furniture-makers could easily be exporting worldwide

Monday January 25 2016

By BITANGE NDEMO
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Let me start by thanking all of you who commented on my contribution last week.

Unlike in the past, we now have social media, which has fittingly reflected on what I wrote on how we can deal with the twin problems of poverty and unemployment. 

In the end, I will collate all of your ideas and develop a people-centred way forward.

In my musings on development and eliminating poverty, I am aware of great forces like corruption that impede the fight against poverty. 

Those of you who have kept abreast of the news know that cartels run virtually every sector in this country.

Imagine how satisfying it would be if we overcame this herculean task ahead of us. The more we throw our hands up in the air and surrender, the easier we make it for the cartels.  This is no time to give up.

Some of our people in the diaspora have great hope that we can succeed. One reader, Stephen Seda in Atlanta, says that banks are particularly interested in financial literacy programs because eventually they lead to depositors and people who start businesses with small loans.

To provide information and close the education gap, we must all be the agents of change. The conversion of Muramati Cooperative Society in Murang’a to Unaitas, a powerful microfinance institution that is likely to ultimately become a bank, will change the lives of many poor people who may never have known what scaling a business is.

It took the leadership of a few visionaries to carry a large contingent of the poor into global players.

But enough on last week’s commentary. Today I want to show how we can scale up the furniture industry in Kenya. I  will lead with a small anecdote that ought to encourage policymakers to do something.

A few weeks back, I travelled to Karen Shopping Centre to interview Lillian, an emerging entrepreneur in the online organic market. I arrived late ,and it took me a while to get back to the city due to the legendary Dagoretti-Karen traffic.

HEAVY HANGING CLOUD

Lillian’s business is being held back by the lack of an efficient logistics firm, and she has been forced to invest in a complementary logistics enterprise, away from her core business.

She cannot maximise her profits because the transportation business she has created cannot be optimally exploited.

Sometimes, it takes more than two hours to travel the three kilometres between Dagoretti Corner and Karen Shopping Centre. The traffic jam is exacerbated by the open-air furniture-making micro enterprise along the way. 

If it's not people buying furniture, then it's the beautiful furniture displayed by the roadside distracting drivers.  

Many motorists complain about the delays, and the expansion of the highway between the two centres has stopped. 

President Kenyatta ordered that the artisans should not be interrupted and he was right, since all the public land around them had been grabbed by the rich, who have converted it into bustling estates. 

It's a live, heavy, hanging cloud but it has a silver lining. With one more order, he can make their lives even better, while at the same time enabling construction of the road to proceed.  

He can make our economy more efficient, reduce the stress of many who regularly use the road and enhance entrepreneurial efficiency for the local business community. Here is how.

There are several pieces of land that have already been or are in the process of being grabbed

There is also public land there, especially the Nairobi County land and what used to be Kenya Posts & Telecommunications Corporation land adjacent to these artisanal activities.  

With a stroke of his pen, in consultation with the National Land Commission, he can convert some 10 acres into several cottage industries housing all the artisans of Dagoretti, with a large expo centre for their production, complete with an industrial incubation facility to help them upgrade to global standards.

THE CONFIDENCE TO EXPORT

With some resources, we can invest in modern computer numerical control (CNC) machines, 3D printers for prototyping and all the latest gadgetry required in a modern tech shop.

These investments will automatically necessitate scalability of these micro enterprises into viable medium enterprises, lead to new industrial production for both local and international markets, and lower our import bill, while increasing export revenues. The net effect will be more jobs.

This is a no-brainer, if you consider that the University of Nairobi, Technical University of Kenya as well as Gear Box and Funkidz in the private sector have fabrication laboratories to support capacity-building if necessary. 

It can all be done in a year, well ahead of next year’s general election. What is done in Dagoretti can be replicated on Outer Ring Road and in all other rudimentary furniture-making centres in Kenya.

It must be a deliberate measure to ensure proper capacity development is emphasised, with strict adherence to standards and links to universities to encourage innovation. 

A policy directive requiring public organisations to use local products, and the development of a global network for distributing Kenyan-made furniture is also required.

More importantly, we need to reset our mindset to accept that we can innovate, create new products, brand them and market them globally. Without such confidence we shall go nowhere. 

This confidence is what will reduce our affinity for foreign products and our mistaken belief that local products are always inferior. This belief is the reason you find low-quality products from Asia in many Kenyan homes when similar products of better quality are produced locally.  

FOURTH INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION

There is a huge local market that we need to exploit if we wish to help our artisans develop the requisite capacity.

We must also assist them with other complex business matters that they may not be adequately prepared to tackle, including finishing, branding, packaging and marketing to quality-conscious global markets. 

We must discard our debilitating negativity and develop the collective will to succeed for the country to move forward. Furniture-making is a big industry with great potential for poverty reduction and the creation of massive employment.

We need policy intervention to stimulate this sector. Luckily, new technologies exist to help us innovate, create prototypes and produce new products. We have a great opportunity to be part of the fourth industrial revolution.

Next week, I will advance the discussion around the creative economy that would absorb thousands of our youth into meaningful income generation and reduce poverty.

Already there are a number of loosely organised groupings of creative artists, but they too need support if the sector is to contribute towards poverty reduction and employment.  My experience in working with these groups taught me many lessons that I will share.

Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th President of the United States, once said:

Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure... than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much, because they live in a gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.

 The writer is an associate professor at University of Nairobi’s Business School. Twitter: @bantigito