In Orahey- Wajir County, Kenya, blacksmiths are using indigenous knowledge to recycle waste into valuables
By Victor Apollo, Head of Solutions Mapping
As a solutions mapper at the UNDP Kenya Accelerator Lab, I visited 5 counties in a month-long monitoring expedition with the Youth Enterprise Development Fund (YEDF). This expedition not only reaffirmed the amazing beauty of our country but also revealed the resilience epitomized by entrepreneurs in the arid and semi-arid lands (ASALs) amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.
During the trip, I came across interesting initiatives like this blacksmith shop Nestled in Orahey market, Wajir county where everyone played their role in the production chain. In one corner, Aju was busy working a pair of hand-held blacksmith bellows made of discarded car wheel inner rubber tubes by blowing on a fire to supply it with air.
With each motion, the flexible tubes comprising of stick handles held together by strings of leather on each tube would expand and contract. At the bottom, next to the fireplace were metallic tubes through which the air was forced out in a stream. Once the metal placed in the fire had heated up until it became soft enough, Aju and Abdi Yare took turns in shaping it with a hammer on a makeshift anvil. Abdi Yare split his time between shaping the metal and deftly shaping a knife handle made of plastic using a small forged hoe with a short wooden handle.
Adjacent to Aju were Kassim and Abdi Karim stitching together dagger leather sheaths with a plastic thread.
In another corner I could see Mohammed next to a blue metallic box displaying the complete works ranging from heads of 3 axes, daggers of different sizes and shades in stitched leather sheaths. I could tell that a lot of effort had gone into making these final products taking into consideration the rudimentary production tools.
As I probed the nature of this enterprise, I could not help but wonder how they were making do with frugality. The axe heads had been forged from a discarded leaf spring; the knife handles were reused
plastics. These could either have been broken water tanks, buckets or plastic chairs as long as it had a color that could add to the aesthetics, “I am an artist, I can decorate the handle with different colors to represent the Kenyan flag,” quipped Abdi Karim.
My experience engaging the Orahey blacksmiths can be distilled into the lessons below:
1. Nothing is absolute; everything is in contingent.
On a typical day, the Orahey blacksmiths can produce up to 5 daggers and conduct a variety of repair work. A dagger sells for KES 2,000–3000 ($20–30). To get the context of how large the demand for daggers is, one needs to piece together the connection between blacksmiths and the larger agricultural production system. Most of their clientele are herdsmen who use the daggers for the halal method of animal slaughter. About 89% of Kenya is characterized as ASAL with pastoralism as the main source of livelihood to millions of people residing in these lands (Amwata et al. 2015). The ASAL regions host 70% of the National Livestock herd with an estimated value of KES.70 billion. These regions are also home to more than 90% of the wildlife that supports the tourism industry, contributing to 12% of Kenya’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
Besides using the daggers to slaughter livestock, the herdsmen use them to protect themselves from wild animals while grazing livestock. “We also make kitchen knives; farm implements, supply butcheries and mama mbogas and repair mostly cheaper products from China,” said Abdi Karim. It was interesting to note how weather patterns affect sales. “We sell more knives during the rainy season. This is when most herders slaughter their livestock,” explained Mohammed. I also learnt that they cannot slaughter their livestock during the dry season. It is also during the rainy season that middlemen buy the daggers from the blacksmiths in bulk and proceed to sell them to the herders in the plains. This was telling given the erratic rainfall witnessed in the ASALs over the years.
Pastoralism in Kenya is synonymous with conflict, lost access to grazing land because of the growth of agriculture and limits to grazing in forested land. These challenges notwithstanding, there is need to consider the entire system and the contribution of pastoralism as both an economic activity to many actors in the livestock value chain and a cultural identity in the ASAL.
2. Informality, its different facets, and the circular economy
Worldwide, millions of people make a living collecting, sorting, recycling, and selling materials that someone else has thrown away. In some countries, waste pickers provide the only form of solid waste collection, providing widespread public benefits and achieving high recycling rates. Besides informal waste pickers, thousands of other informal sector workers including those in the manufacturing sector like the Orahey blacksmiths play a key role in collecting and recycling scrap metal and plastic waste.
“We collect discarded plastic water tanks, plastic seats, scrap metal,” says Abdi Karim, next to a heap of assorted colored plastic. “We don’t want the good ones, if it breaks, that’s when we use them.” Additionally, by offering repair services, the blacksmiths play a role of ensuring that most of these products do not end up in landfills.
While the county government pays private companies to collect and separate waste, the informal collectors such as Orahey blacksmiths who unknowingly manage waste by reusing them as raw materials are not rewarded for their work. Whereas there are economic incentives along the value chain for informal waste pickers, I came to realize that a segment of informal sector workers in manufacturing who make products out of waste do not benefit from these incentives as they fall outside the traditional value chain of informal recycling based on multiple middlemen. Theirs is a direct relation from picking the waste and reusing it. On the contrary, the organizational structure and functioning of the Informal Recycling Sector (IRS) starts with the collection of recyclable materials from (open) dumpsites, the streets, or directly at the source from households. Recyclables are then passed on to informal junk yard owners, intermediate dealers, or other middlemen in the value chain where they undergo sorting, aggregation, cleaning and processing before they are reintroduced into the (formal) economy as secondary raw materials (Asim et al., 2012; Ezeah et al., 2013).
Since waste management and recycling in the country are characterized by a great degree of informality, there is an urgent need to find models for partnering with informal sector workers outside the informal recycling sector in an effective, scalable, and sustainable manner. Approaches such as fair-trade practices, plastic credits, payments for ecosystem services could be adapted to encourage producers of plastics (multinational corporations like brand owners and producers of fast moving consumer goods) to compensate informal sector workers outside the IRS for their service to the environment. Additionally, borrowing from the food industry, the concept of short supply chains can act as a method to increase environmental and economic sustainability. This is especially relevant given the disruption of global supply chains during the pandemic, the increase in global manufacturing CO2 emissions and Kenya’s Buy Kenya, Build Kenya strategy which gave hope to the revival of local economies.
1. Digital blacksmiths — Celebrating the old and the new
“We inherited this trade from our forefathers & our ancestors you can call us ancestral industrialists,” replied Abdi Karim with a smile when I asked where they got their skills from.
“All these people you see here have been trained by us. After 2 months, the novices become experts. We have some people in Eldas, others in Hadado who started as trainees from our shop and are now operating their own shops,” he adds.
Here, the experienced members have taken it upon themselves to train interested young people on the mechanics of the trade with some degree of success as they go on to open their own shops. The Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) institutions could use these as platforms to not only encourage frugal design but also offer students an opportunity for experiential learning and inventing solutions that solve pressing challenges.
According to Mohammed, “most young people don’t like this trade because of the intensive labor. We can make it appealing for them if we introduce technology.”
He was candid enough to tell me that the other reason for the disinterest among young people was social. The trade is seen as low level yet “it pays my bills and gets me going,” confirmed Mohammed. Despite sourcing most of their raw materials locally, they buy the leather used to make the sheaths from Nairobi, the capital city. Opportunities abound with the availability of and access to raw materials in the ASALs but these cannot be tapped due to the high concentration of tanneries near Nairobi area and poor infrastructure hindering the industry to take advantage of rich livestock pool in rural areas.
Kenya has the highest unemployment rate in the East African Region, with unemployment rate of 25% among the urban youths and 9% of the youths in the rural areas (KIPPRA, 2017). Interventions to uplift the manufacturing sector, can generate opportunities for innovation and entrepreneurship. The proliferation of maker spaces and fab labs could help support local manufacturing. 3-D printers are fueling the Industrial Revolution by putting the power to manufacture things in people’s hands, a great opportunity for micro and small enterprises.
As it is, the Orahey blacksmiths firmly believe that their frugal designs are superior to the substandard imported goods from China and offer sustainability and suitability for low resource environments, “the products from China are for one time use; if you use them to slice vegetables once or twice the handles come off. Some of them are blunt and their farm implements are very heavy.”
“Ours made with bare hands are not only durable but are of high quality,” asserted Abdi Karim. Manufacturing industry is a crucial engine for sustaining economic growth and development, job creation and poverty alleviation. There is renewed interest in the manufacturing sector through the Big 4 Agenda which seeks to increase the GDP contribution of the sector from 9.2% to 20% by 2022.
However, the logistics of producing Orahey’s products means slow progress. Automating the production process with new technology and skills could enhance the productivity of such enterprises, “with the proper tools and training, our work would have been even better,” says Abdi Karim. Additionally, there are opportunities such as marketing through social media and e-commerce platforms that tech-savvy young people can tap into to advertise the products while minimizing the low pricing from middlemen.
A common thread looking at the enterprises that I visited was how they could achieve more if authorities and other stakeholders including the private sector built on what they had established. Despite being materially constrained, the Orahey blacksmiths’ optimism, resilience, creativity and concern for their end users cannot be downplayed.
To make any development process more inclusive, there is no escape from building upon creative and innovative experiments pursued by people at village or semi-urban level. Many of these experiments lead to development of innovations, which can improve productivity and generate employment factor that policy makers tend to forget. The temptation is to replace the local solutions with their own shiny, ‘world-class’ or ‘best-practice’ solution.
For efficient adoption of mechanization in small scale industries, policy makers need to co-create better tools with and for such enterprises while taking into consideration the skills and ingenuity of local artisans and innovators like the Orahey blacksmiths. This will ensure that the hand-tools and other products they make are more durable and functional within the context of the users in their local communities.
Thanks to the Orahey blacksmiths (Aju, Abdi Karim, Mohammed, Abdi Yare and Kassim) for generously sharing their knowledge, unmet needs and the possibilities of their trade.
Thanks to Prof. Anil K. Gupta, founder of the Honey Bee Network for pointing me in the direction of what has already been done around bridging historical and contemporary knowledge on agricultural tools and for sharing a practical way forward.
Thanks to Gurjot Dhillon, user researcher & usability designer based in The Netherlands.
 Baringo, Turkana, Marsabit, Wajir and Tana River
 Orahey means ‘Sunshine’ in Somali language
 The Arabic word halal means permissible, and the rules of slaughter are based on Islamic law.
 The idea is that whoever preserves or maintains an ecosystem service should be paid for doing so.
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