Jua kali dressed in Mitumba

Cat walk ready arc welder

Catwalk ready arc welder

This bizarre fabricated arc welding machine is the unique collaboration between jua kali and mitumba. Jua kali literally means hot sun in Kiswahili, and refers to the informal small traders who work outdoors in the sun fabricating mostly work metal and wood items, fixing cars and other household items. Unable to afford new tools they fabricate their own out of locally available materials. Mitumba refers to the second hand western clothing sold on the streets of many African cities. The arc welder uses stolen scrap and second hand wires that are coated for insulation using strips of cloth torn from unsellable mitumba clothes.  This is then wound into the welding machine coils.

God help James if it rains

God help James if it rains!

I’d gone to Limuru to get a welder for a job on a dairy where I met James Mutahi. He is a typical jua kali wrought iron artisan who operates on the sidewalk outside his street workshop using his own home made tools.  I’ve seen jua kali home made arc welding machines before but usually they are housed in a protective box. To save money James dispensed with the casing revealing the guts of his arc welder.

James was making security grill for a window. There’s a huge demand for arc welding in Limuru especially for gates and window bars which are essential in the high risk security zones of Nairobi and other urban centers.  Nairobi’s security is the result of the collaboration between mitumba and jua kali!

The picture speaks volumes about the Jua-Kali sector in Kenya– cost saving is paramount whilst safety is overlooked hence no housing box – look for welding goggles, fire extinguisher and other safety gear.

(This submission is from Dominic Wanjihia)

11 comments » Write a comment

  1. Genius. This sounds like a good job of reverse engineering. At least for the 1st person who did it. Insulating wires with cloth; not sure about it, but if it get the job done.

    Good job the word ‘stolen’ has been crossed off. Stuff like that doesn’t help the perception of us Africans.

  2. Thanks Joe, I’d never seen anything like it. Not sure I agree with you on deleting the word stolen – it’s well know that the main reason why welding is such a huge business is due to the insecurity in some parts of Kenya.

  3. It always makes me wonder why these things are just built to the point where they provide functionality – and anything beyond that, like the mentioned safety, a cover or a cleaner design, seems to be completely unimportant/unnesessary/unaffordable.

    This also applies to other sectors, but the welding machine is a perfect example for this …philosophy?

  4. Minimize costs and maximize profits is my guess…these units are rented out and operated by daily wage labourers – and, heck, why not? Nobody stops them!

  5. Historically, safety comes at later stages of development. Functionality first, then safety. Once basic production is established, things like efficiency and safety will come. Even in well developed industries this is the case. A basic product is invented; then engineering staffs design safety features to meet legal standards. In Mr. Mutahi’s case, this would mean lost production time that he cannot afford. Hopefully, he will get far enough ahead to have the leisure to install basic safety features before he has an accident.

  6. Thanks for your comment Hammet – I agree totally. Bill, if you really want to get him a mask we can locate him – question is,…will he wear it? I’ll inquire and get back to you shortly. Paula

  7. Wow~ here in Australia there would be so many laws prohibiting them from making money from this. It’s fantastic how people see a need in their community and then make a way to fill it, whilst providing an income for themselves.

  8. I used to work in an African metal shop. The guys didn’t wear the masks they had until I got them the auto-darkening type, then they wore it religiously.

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