Digging For Fire: Introduction

This is the first draft of my introduction to my upcoming book, which is currently (tentatively) entitled Digging For Fire: Seeking Innovation In East Africa. This may not make it to the final book, or at least not exactly like this, but I thought I’d post it as a teaser.

There’s a trunk, sitting in my living room.

It’s not a wildly unique example of the form, as far as trunks go: a footlocker, neither particularly large, nor particularly small, made from sheet metal. The outside is painted an electric blue, with rudimentary abstract designs spray-painted on it with silver spray paint, like an aspiring teenage heavy metal guitarist might put on his pawn-shop axe. The inside is an especially offensive shade of shit brown. It’s unremarkable, timeless — if you saw it in the background of a black and white photograph from the late nineteeth century, it would not immediately leap out to the eye as an anachronism. It’s the kind of trunk you might pick up at a discount hardware store to keep attic junk in, the kind of trunk that gets stamped out for pennies by the billions in Southeast Asian mass production factories and shipped to every corner of the earth.

But this particular trunk does not hail from Southeast Asia or, indeed, a mass production line anywhere. It is a jua kali trunk, and it began its existence in Gikomba, a massive, sprawling marketplace adjacent to the Industrial District of Nairobi, Kenya. It is, quite literally, artisanal, in the sense that it was made by an artisan, who assembled it by hand from recycled materials using handmade tools, sitting on the packed earth floor of his tin-roofed stall, with his shitty Tecno cell phone sitting on a hand-welded workbench, blasting Bob Marley or Kanye West.

I know this because I bought this trunk from such an artisan in Gikomba — or rather, my taxi driver bought it, insisting that if I attempted to purchase it myself, as a stupid white man, the trunk’s maker would hike the price up four or five times what he’d charge a local. (I got to wait in the taxi and scare off carjackers with my knife. Having experienced the fine Kenyan art of haggling, I’m pretty sure I got the less stressful side of the bargain.)

Jua kali is Swahili for “fierce sun”, and it refers to the 80% of Kenyans who make up the informal economy, outside the civil structures of taxation and regulation and paperwork: bored girls chilling out in rough wooden booths in the market, selling Safaricom mobile phone SIM cards and scratch-off airtime cards, old ladies selling bananas and mangos in roadside stalls, young hustlers with their stalls full of secondhand Lady Gaga and Seattle Seahawks t-shirts…and the makers, fixers, and jury-riggers sitting underneath that fierce sun in places like Gikomba, welding together wheelbarrows from bits of rebar and oil barrels and broken bicycles, or painstakingly repairing cheap Chinese mobile phones with homebrewed circuit testers. Their services are an absolute necessity in a place where simply popping into a big box retailer and purchasing what you need is impossible: where the average monthly wage can be as low as USD$60 and the nearest Home Depot is eight thousand miles away.

The jua kali world is what the futurist Alvin Toffler referred to as an “adhocracy”, structureless and unregulated, a Darwinian ecology of problem-solving and gap-filling. In the informal economy, you don’t have a career, per se; you may not even have a job title. You just find something that people will pay you to do, and do it as often and as long as you can, whether it’s driving a taxi or selling peanuts in newspaper cones or making trunks and selling them to gigantic white weirdos. It’s pure distilled personal entrepreneurship, in the absence of other viable options.

* * *

 My trunk is not a Ruskinite triumph of form and function, built to survive the millennium, exquisitely and lovingly hand-crafted by a master craftsman with a deep and spiritual connection to the objets d’art that issue from his hand. It is, in point of fact, kind of a piece of shit — or, to put it more kindly, what the CEO of my last startup would’ve undoubtedly referred to as a “minimum viable product”. The sheet metal from which it is made is only slightly thicker and sturdier than cardboard, the rivets have already begun to pop out, it reeks of cheap paint, and it barely survived the long journey from Nairobi back to Las Vegas, where I live.

But it did survive, and accomplished the task which I set for it, which was to get my clothes and souvenirs home without spilling them all over the tarmac of the Amsterdam airport. And that’s the point. The jua kali is not about pursuing perfection or about ruthless efficiency. It’s about getting shit done, however you can. It’s the socioeconomic equivalent of duct tape and chewing gum, and it holds Kenya — and, under other names, most of the developing world — together.

These signal virtues of the jua kali — finding gaps and filling them, working fast and cheap and under the radar, rapidly building the minimum viable product — are also, at least on paper, the values that lie at the heart of the ascendant Western technology startup industry. So it is little surprise that Kenya — and, to a lesser extent, neighboring Uganda — are hot spots for East Africa’s rising tech industry. As we’ll see in this book, a combination of historical, cultural and economic factors put these countries in a unique position to become tech hubs for all of sub-Saharan Africa in the twenty-first century.

In fact, it’s difficult to see the East African tech industry unfiltered by the unblinking lens of the fierce sun. A lot of the coders and designers and and entrepreneurs who inhabit incubators and hackerspaces like Nairobi’s iHub and Kampala’s Hive Colab got their start in the informal economy, and a lot of them still reside there in some way or another. And it is the jua kali mindset — relentlessly seeking ways to survive, improve, produce — that will drive their success.


* * *


For many Western readers, it may come as a surprise that East Africa even has a technology industry, much less a growing and thriving one. Sub-Saharan Africa, we are told, is a savage landscape of warlords and genocide, starving children and rampant disease. For many Americans, their only association with Uganda is Joseph Kony, the lunatic leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army who believes himself to be possessed by spirits and press-gangs children into his militia to commit baroque atrocities. Mention Kenya and you might get vague notions of elephants and lions, or the recent attack by militant Somali Muslims on the Westgate mall, or sad platitudes about Kibera, the largest slum in Africa. When I arrived in Nairobi, I was warned by several acquaintances on social networks to be very careful to watch out for hippos.

While none of these ideas are wrong, precisely, they paint a completely inaccurate picture of the realities of life in East Africa. Sitting on the porch of an apartment in Kampala, drinking Coke Zero and looking out at the shores of Lake Victoria, I was in no more danger from Kony’s sad child soldiers than I would have been in my own bedroom; and Kibera, though achingly poor, is far from the abyss of endless sorrow and misery that is often suggested by humanitarian and relief groups and non-governmental organizations. (And while there are certainly hippos in Kenya, and though they can certainly present a lethal danger if provoked, Nairobi is a sprawling city of three million people; your chances of being killed by a rampaging hippo in its streets are roughly equivalent to your chances of being mauled by a goddamn grizzly bear while sipping a latté in Seattle’s Pike Place Market.)

Our stories in the developed world about sub-Saharan Africa are sparse and sensationalistic, and tinged with the remnants of Victorian-era colonialism, misguided paternalism, and sub rosa racism. Consequently, we fill in the gaps with assumptions, many of which, even if well-meaning, are simply wrong. For example, when I sent out an email during my campaign to crowdfund my research trip for this book, an acquaintance who’s a grad student in sociology replied, saying that my project seemed tinged with cultural imperialism — as if I was imposing my Western obsessions with technology onto people who did not adhere to my cultural ideas. And while there are certainly big differences between Western and African social values, I’m pretty sure that the thirty million mobile phone subscribers in Kenya — and the six hundred and fifty million mobile phone users in all of Africa — would find that notion amusing.

As I walked the muddy streets of Nairobi and Kampala, as I sat and talked with nerds over full English breakfasts and excellent East African coffee and perused beautiful paintings in a shanty art gallery in Kibera, I realized that, as much as this book needed to be about technology, it also needed to be about stories: the West’s stories and the stories Africa tells about itself, the ones we’re told and the ones we never hear.

And so this is my story of my experience of the tech world in East Africa. I cannot claim that it is the truth; merely my truth, as I saw it. And I hope that it may, in some small way, help people understand that the reality is far more complex and fascinating than the simple portrait of sub-Saharan Africa often painted in Western media. Like my wonderful, shitty jua kali trunk, there is more here than meets the eye.

Joshua Ellis Mobile, Alabama December 26th, 2013

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