By Joel Ngige
Joel Ngige has been unemployed for a while, but the poor – including his mother – continue to need his help. Now he’s using a machine made in Nairobi to process metal to keep the family afloat. Here, at one of his businesses, Iain Martin makes a face of sadness at the news. He wants to find a job somewhere else in the fast changing world of African production, but for the time being he’s stuck turning out his products. Ceramic workers can be a woman or a man. They can be anyone – even a member of the disabled community. To honour African culture. Kenyan graphic designer Ernest Igambirwe had a design idea. These elephants, or “beauty seekers”, as they are called, have a demand for beauty powders. ‘Best job’ But he is too shy to tell the story of how he found this bizarre job at his workshop. “It was the best job that ever existed to me, to be honest with you. I had to tell that story to people,” he said. “A lot of women’s boxes that you see at malls in Nairobi, shopping malls, they have women who have come from other countries. So I just make a plastic box and put in in your house, so that when women come in from Europe, whatever the market is for them,” he says. Ernest Igambirwe is one of several Nairobi design schools graduates who have found this strange niche among the other ups and downs of life. “I am one of those lucky ones,” he says. “But a lot of people, even with their parents’ money, cannot afford to pay for this, so they die, because they don’t know where to get money, because they can’t bear the money, they have a million or less,” he says. In fact, he says the man who sculpted him – or at least helped him with the name – gave him a coin when he had just finished his first job. Ernest says that was the first time anyone – or anyone who knew of his work – had ever offered him money. But it is not easy. Even after two years of work, he says his eyesight is poor. He can’t see the plate he’s trying to fix – and that makes him think. He says he can’t do what he wants and that sometimes he feels sad and angry. Companies interested in Mr Igambirwe’s designs may go to Mexico or India, he says, but they don’t take African design seriously. “I am saying this, I need to prove, I don’t want anybody to think, ‘oh the Chinese made it, we will copy that’. I don’t want anybody to say this, I really want to prove that I can produce a beauty product, a beauty powder for women that comes from African culture,” he says. Martin Owino works at another factory in Nairobi’s Eastlands area. He makes coffin-shaped power separators to create seamless steel products. “The shelves that you see in power parlours, the spokes are made from different materials,” he says. “As we know, in Kenya’s business environment, they have to find the cheapest price. So, you are making a fast-changing product, and you are just doing it that way,” he says. “It is a question of revolution. Let me do it my way. But right now, it’s us paying for that revolution.” But for these Nairobi metal composers, they are successful – they do well and they have a job – but they don’t have a future. Their workshops are manned by youth workers from small-scale artisanal units, but there is very little else to do. Martin had an idea – but found he was too shy to even tell it.
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