Report from Kenya #588 – February 14, 2020

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Every day on my afternoon walk, I pass buy the shop pictured above. A few weeks ago I stopped by to have Griffin’s (my grandnephew) shoes repaired. As we were waiting for them to be fixed, I realized that this shop was making shoes. In particular at this time at the beginning of the school year, they were making the black school shoes that students wear. I asked how much they cost and I was told $8. We had just bought shoes for Griffin for $24 from Bata Shoe-Kenya that makes 30 million pairs of shoes per year for the Kenyan market. We had spent $16 more that we could have.

I then noticed that the sign said, “Shoe Maker” (See picture) with drawings beside the door. I wondered how I could have missed noticing this for the years that I have walked past the shop. The owners are two men, including the one in the picture, and a women whom I assume is the wife of one of the men. They were using only a treadle sewing machine to stitch the shoes – they were using no electricity. While we were there waiting for Griffin’s shoes to be repaired, one of the men had sewed together the top of a shoe and the woman had applied the polish to a shoe that had been made previously. Since they stay in business, I expect that they are making a decent living.

Why are the shoes so much less expensive than the manufactured ones? There is no wrapping or shipping cost, little overhead except the rent of perhaps $20 per month, no bureaucracy, no middle person distribution costs, and they are keeping the retail costs themselves. I don’t know if their quality will be as good as the Bata shoes, but I have not been impressed with the quality of Bata shoes made in Kenya. Next time one of the kids needs school shoes we will get them from St. Lukes Shoe Maker and see how long they last.

This led me to think about all the other small manufacturing outfits in town. I give some examples below.

This is the house being built next door to us which I have pictured a number of times in prior Reports from Kenya. At this point in the construction, the owner is building a cement block wall around this plot. Normally these cement blocks would be made in a large establishment, purchased, and transported to the site. In this case, though, the builders decided to bring the gravel, sand, and cement to the plot and hire three men to manufacture the blocks. This should be much cheaper than buying and transporting them from a distant company.

There are at least seven shops in Lumakanda town that make metal doors, windows, gates, and other metallic items. Here you can see the door on the left that this welder is constructing. Of course, they have to buy the metal sheets and rods, but the “added value” of making the items occurs here in Lumakanda.

This is a furniture shop in town that makes chairs, sofa, tables, cabinets, and other wooden furniture. This shop does have electricity and has some power tools including a plainer. The wood comes from nearby trees, although the foam and fabric have to be purchased from outside. We have bought a good deal of our furniture from this shop. We also bought a few manufactured pieces from town and we found that the furniture built in Lumakanda is much stronger and much easier to repair if needed. While not as elegant as the store bought furniture, they are much cheaper. There are at least three other furniture shops in town. The reason we patronize this particular shop is because Gladys is friends with the wife.

This shop specializes in wooden doors that are used for interior and latrines doors.

This bakery just opened in town a few months ago. Rather than bring their items from a larger factory, they bake the bread, cookies, biscuits, and cakes right here in town. They sell their pound loaf of white bread for 40 cents while the commercial bread is 50 cents. Next time we need a birthday cake, rather than buying it in Eldoret, which we have had to do previously, we will buy it at Daddies Cake Basket.

There are other manufacturing enterprises nearby. For example, brick making is local business where the brick makers make the mud bricks and then, after drying, fires them in a kiln. I don’t have a local picture of this because it has been raining too much and this is done mostly in the dry season. Likewise a “sawmill” is two men on a motorcycle who drive with a chain saw and fuel to the tree that needs to be cut down and sawed into lumber.

I often think of Lumakanda as mostly a government sponsored town because it is the seat of Lugari sub-county. But as I have realized it is a small-scale manufacturing city also. One the one hand, when all these small manufacturing businesses are added together, they give self-employment/employment to a good number of people. In addition the money then stays in the community rather than flowing elsewhere to the large establishment in Eldoret or Nairobi. This therefore contributes to Lumakanda’s prosperity.

If you read back in United States social history to before World War I, the US was much like this. The Twentieth Century then saw a stampede from rural small communities to the large cities, a movement from small-scale enterprises to large manufacturing establishments, some of which have now moved overseas to low wage counties. Small American towns died or are dying and many US rural areas have become depopulated. In the long arc of history, was this a mistake?

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David Zarembka

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