Africa’s Informal Economy Revealed

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Steve Daniels, the founder of A Better World By Design and co-creator of Maker Faire Rhode Island, just published a book, Making Do, based on his research on informal economies in Africa. The shocker? He just graduated from college this year and is 21 years old. Here’s how one youngin’ is making inroads in the humanitarian design field.

How did you become interested in innovation in Africa’s informal sector?

Like many young designers, I’ve been passionate about technology to promote sustainable development. For a while I studied appropriate technology, a field that since the 1970s has sought to deliver life-saving and income-generating tools to communities throughout the developing world. However, countless accounts have shown that most projects don’t sustain themselves and don’t scale. That’s partly because those who design the technologies are so far removed from those who make, own, and use them. I took a trip to Kenya and Ghana to investigate how we might bridge this gap and quickly realized that Africa has a huge pool of untapped talent–the technologists of the informal economy. The informal economy comprises unregulated and unprotected, but legitimate microenterprises–more than 90 percent of non-agricultural employment in Kenya. Informal craftsmen, known as jua kali in Kenya, make their livelihoods by manufacturing products in the resource-constrained environment Westerners struggle so hard to adapt to. Their businesses thrive due to the complex networks among traders and producers. The indigenous talent of the jua kali will be essential to developing truly appropriate technologies and their networks the key to sustaining and scaling them. Making Do breaks down the skills and networks of the jua kali in order to understand the role craftsmen and collaborators like us might play in a unique form of industrialization for Africa.

Source: (link opens in a new window)