Industrial growth has become an article of faith in development. Investment in technical advancement is a must if a country is going to achieve any developmental goals.
Putting money in innovation is a sine qua non of economic advancement. Kenya has not really put any serious effort in promoting local innovation.
Although it be said that the Government, through various ministries, has been promoting the jua kali or the informal sector, but in the public, as creative as jua kali products are, they are synonymous with shoddiness, and unprofessional finishing, which means poor service value and short life span.
To be fair to the informal sector, some of the products, especially low end consumer items like cooking pans, are solid and durable. Some grandmothers still use sufurias made by artisans in the 1960s.
Yet the jua kali should have mutated long ago into more sophisticated production. What happened to the Government enthusiasm about this sector in the 1980s?
The jua kali sheds at Kamukunji are a small replica of other Nyayo projects. Though well-intentioned by the then President, they did not go far beyond pomp and pageantry.
At best, people responsible of implementing poorly thought-out projects knew that the plan would soon stall in the mud of corruption and bureaucracy once the colourful inaugural ceremonies were over.
The sustainability of some of the projects was simply the comprehension of the political class. The case of the Nyayo car is well known.
The car did not move an inch. It stalled right in front of its chief promoter, the President.
The jua kali sector, epitomised by the sheds at Kamukunji, is a metaphor of our lopsided view of promoting local industry.
The artisans were expected to develop their talents into micro scale industry without either infrastructure or technical backing.
True, some training was done mainly on business orientation. In any technical venture, that is the easier part.
That is the software of the industry. The real challenge is in the development of technical capacity, including provision of tools and machines.
A visit to and a chat with artisans readily confirm the story of hijacking of the concept by technocrats. Funds meant for training the artisans abroad would benefit the relatives and friends of the Government officials.
There is great potential for the jua kali. But the products can only compete locally and internationally if they are seen to be innovative and having a minimum of sophistication.
Take for example the energy jiko: one of the best-known jua kali innovations has not changed for 20 years.
The sturdy meat grill has not acquired wheels to make it easier to push it around and wooden pan to cut the meat on.
Now, China has done exactly that, patented it and is now available in the local supermarkets. One does not need the whole clan to move it.
The jua kali sector faces one major problem, and it is not lack of money per se. There are always donors eager to sponsor promising innovations.
The greatest contributor to the shoddiness and stunted growth of this sector is the State bureaucracy and official corruption.
Over 20 years since the Government started showing interest in the sector, there is still not enough power at the model jua kali centre at Kamukunji.
The sheds are falling literally on the heads of the artisans. There is still no mechanisation. Industrialisation means machines take over the human labour, to maximise production and efficiency.
The scene of muscled men hammering tin and metal into crude shapes is sad. Innovation builds upon innovation.
This happens if there is investment, follow up, training evaluation and monitoring of the projects and if there is deliberate provision of equipment.
Only then can the jua kali sector move from artisan stage, relying on muscle power to produce one product per week, into micro manufacturing firms.
Notice the difference between Kariobangi light industries and the jua kali sheds at Kamukunji. The light industries form the basis of really Kenyan-based industry, not the latter.
At Kariobangi, one finds the dynamism of modern manufacturing complete with division of labour and specialisation.
In fact, it is an industrial cluster. The only limit is space as the place is rapidly turning into a housing estate.
Dr Mbataru is a trade and development consultant based in Nairobi