Factory jobs in Nairobi: It’s complicated….

Factory jobs in Nairobi: It’s complicated….

The mission of the Mathare Dressmaking and Tailoring Training Centre in Nairobi is to train women and men to use the industrial sewing machines to enable them to get jobs. And, as I reported in June, 124 of the 181 trainees have managed to secure employment with Ruaraka Clothing Industries, a large employer in the area. In most cases the trainees are only able to get the skilled machine operator jobs because of the training centre.

Studying factory jobs

I consider this employment a great success! And so I was interested to read this study that looked at the effect of low-wage manufacturing jobs on workers in Ethiopia. Now, this is in Ethiopia, not Kenya, and I do not know if the workers are taking the same sort of skilled jobs that the Mathare trainees are able to secure.

What did the study find? “It turned out that for most people, working in a factory didn’t significantly improve their income relative to the people in the control group. But getting cash to help start your own business did.”

The researchers, Chris Blattman and Stephan Dercon, summed it up like this:

  • Most people who applied for these factory jobs didn’t like them or intend to stay, rather the jobs were low paid and unpleasant and used as a safety net of sorts, while people looked for other entrepreneurial activities or less difficult wage work
  • But the health risks of industrial work were high and there’s evidence that serious health problems doubled if you took the factory job
  • When you gave them $300 cash [instead of the factory job], they started a small business and earnings went up by a third.
Students in the Samro Poly tailoring classroom in Eldoret, Kenya. Many are wearing clothes that they have made in the class.

Students in the Samro Poly tailoring classroom in Eldoret, Kenya. Many are wearing clothes that they have made in the class.

What does this mean for SIA?

I wasn’t sure what this all meant for SIA partners. So I emailed Jeremiah Mzee, who is director of the training centre project. He wrote:

“I completely agree with the writer of this article.

“It is true that when a factory establishes in Kenya, it creates new jobs for both the skilled and unskilled laborers. A majority get low wages and there is nothing they can do. Most of them try to work in these factories for low pay with a hope of getting something better. In Ruaraka these factory jobs are considered to be for women simply because they pay low wages, though to the women they believe these factories provide valuable employment opportunities for them. I AGREE.

“Most people working in these factories get wages enough only to meet basic needs and it is true that entrepreneurial women running small businesses in Ruaraka have better income and financial independency.”

It is always useful to get this kind of feedback. It is the great benefit of our long-term partnership with grassroots leaders who know the reality of the situation on the ground. Luckily, Jeremiah Mzee is one of our newest Small Business Fund coordinators. He is already working with these women to help them become entrepreneurs. Another five business groups received their $150 grants last month. And the Mathare Dressmaking and Tailoring Training Centre will continue to train people to be able to apply for the higher paying jobs at the factories, until they can find something better.

Training youth to run better businesses

Training youth to run better businesses

We know the value of business training from our Small Business Fund program. Grant recipients are trained in marketing, record keeping, risk management, and planning so that they are well prepared to start their small enterprise. This helps them find the right product for the market and make sure their businesses will be profitable.

Seeing the confidence that people have after the training, I am so excited to announce our new partnership with Junior Achievement (JA) to train high schoolers in Malawi to be entrepreneurs! The JA program is being run in 120 countries around the world, including 16 in Africa. Nick Vilelle saw the “mind-blowing” benefit of the JA Company Program in Swaziland and is eager to introduce it to students in Malawi.

boy makes samosas in uganda

Youth making samoas for his family’s business in Uganda.

Hands-on Learning

The Company Program is a hands-on way of learning business, teamwork, and creative thinking. Approximately 25 students at the high school learn by doing as they form, capitalize, operate and liquidate their own companies over a 12-week period, using real money raised from “shareholders.” JA uses volunteers as teachers, mentors and role models for the students, keeping the cost low and integrating the community into the program. Since it is an extracurricular, after-school program, it attracts students who are motivated to learn and get involved.

The SIA Community Grant will fund implementation of the JA Company Program at five urban and 5 rural schools in southern Malawi. This will reach a total of 250 high school youth! And  will serve as a test case for expanding the program to other parts of Malawi.


I really appreciate that JA has Sharing the Gift built into its model. To begin with, the majority of the work is done by volunteers from the community. Often, these are accomplished business people, donating their time to help teach the students these important business basics. This is a great example for the students to see.

Second, as a part of forming these mini-companies, the student teams are expected to build Corporate Social Responsibility into their plans. This often takes the form of students volunteering on Saturdays to help out a less fortunate member of their community. “The learning gained from carrying out this part of the program is powerful,” reports Nick, from his experience in Swaziland.

Training leads to jobs in Nairobi

Training leads to jobs in Nairobi

“This is an opportunity for me to change my life from idling and gossiping around in the community. I am happy that the number of cases involving me with other women will now reduce with this lifetime opportunity to gain embroidery and tailoring skills. I would like to specialize in school outfits like track suits and girl’s skirts. Thank you so much Progressive Volunteers.’’

Rosemary Ochieng is 19 years old and dropped out of school after elementary school. She lives in the Ruaraka community – one of the poorest areas of Kenya’s capital city, Nairobi. There aren’t a lot of good opportunities for women like Rosemary to turn their lives around. The opportunity that Rosemary credits for changing her life is attending the Mathare Dressmaking Training Centre. The centre runs classes for four months with skilled training in tailoring, machine embroidery, and fashion design.

Rosemary is not the only one to benefit. She is one of 168 women and 13 men who have completed the training course.


Trainees gather around a table to practice their sewing.

Training leads to jobs

Of the 181 trainees, 124 have managed to secure employment with Ruaraka Clothing Industries, a large employer in the area. In most cases these women and youth are working as skilled machine operators, meaning that the classes directly opened this employment opportunity for them. There are also 27 trainees who are working for independent dressmaking businesses. Four more are remaining in the Dressmaking Centre to help with training and management.

George is one of the instructors and is a skilled machine operator.

George is one of the instructors and is a skilled machine operator.

With a Community Grant from Spirit in Action, the Mathare Dressmaking Training Centre rented a place to hold the trainings. They also bought high-tech sewing and embroidery machines, and hired instructors to develop the training curriculum.

The Centre continues to improve their offerings by changing as they learn from each training cycle. They found that many women were missing the evening classes because of family obligations. For the next round of classes, they will focus on morning and afternoon classes to better accommodate the busy schedules of their students.

The training team is also looking into ways to make their program more sustainable and they are considering a Sharing the Gift component. This would encourage the trained students to give back to the Centre, especially after they have been able to secure steady jobs.

Congratulations to the Mathare Dressmaking and Training Centre for truly empowering poor women and giving them hope for the future.


Top 5 SIA Moments of 2015

Top 5 SIA Moments of 2015

This has been a good year for Spirit in Action and our partners! It is so exciting to look back and see all that we have accomplished, and all that our amazing partners have done to bring more prosperity to families in their communities.

  • fb logo_siaNew logo: The year started off with the unveiling of our new logo! We finally have a logo that really represents us to the world. The ripples in the logo continue to inspire and remind me of our focus to spark change that will naturally multiply and expand within communities. (Read the explanation of our logo.)
  • New Small Business Fund Coordinator: This summer we added a new local coordinator to the Small Business Fund team! Hastings Phiri has already begun mentoring families in rural Malawi to start and run new businesses. Hastings is a dedicated community organizer and passionate about reducing poverty and helping families get ahead. He lives in the same region as SBF Coordinator Canaan Gondwe and they two of them meet to share challenges and develop their mentoring and training skills. (Read more about Hastings.)
Girls from Meru and Samburu together; sharing their experience of the alternative rite of passage.

Girls from Meru and Samburu together; sharing their experience of the alternative rite of passage.

  • Expanding Anti-FGM movement: SIA has supported girls’ empowerment workshops with sexual education and alternatives to the traditional female genital mutilation rite of passage. Just a few weeks ago some of the girls from the Meru workshops were able to attend the Alternative Rite of Passage in Samburu, two hours away. Margaret of CIFORD in Meru reported, “Some girls were excited as they could never have dreamt of going to the Samburu.” Also, CIFORD is gaining national recognition from Kenya’s Daily Nation newspaper for their FGM workshops! Read the full article here!
  • Sewing Training Centre: I’m really excited about this grant project which has been able to train 79 women and 2 men and help them get employed in sewing operator jobs in Nairobi. Women who know how to use the industrial machines are paid higher wages and the SIA training center provides them access to these machines and trains them in the necessary skills. The center has been able to receive contracts for sewing projects and they are well on their way to becoming a self-sustaining operation. (Read more about the training centre.)
  • Construction Project: The new Manyamula COMSIP Cooperative conference hall, restaurant, and guest rooms are under construction! I loved visiting Manyamula and seeing the amazing transformation that has happened in the village since the formation of the savings and loans cooperative 6 years ago. This construction project represents a new level of development and I look forward to seeing how it will benefit the community and cooperative members in the years to come. (Read more about the COMSIP Cooperative.)

Bonus: I loved sharing this video made by SIA volunteer and supporter, Carmen Hernandez, about what makes me grateful about SIA.

What story about SIA stuck out to you in 2015?

A time to renew our shared vision

A time to renew our shared vision

“A time to renew our shared vision of working in the community so as to achieve a greater impact in alleviating poverty, and also share success stories!”

Wambui Nguyo, Small Business Fund Coordinator in Nairobi, Kenya, offered the above tagline summary of our Small Business Fund Coordinator Conference in Kasozi Village last July. We traveled from five different countries (United States, Malawi, Kenya, Nigeria, and our two hosts in Uganda), arriving at the end of a small dusty, dirt road to met for three days to discuss all things Small Business Fund.

Uganda is quite a bit more tropical compared with Kenya and Malawi, so we shed our warm sweaters (which we necessary in the cold Nairobi rain) and brought out the sun hats and gathered under a pop-up awning for our morning meetings and evening check-ins.

Our conference meeting room in tropical Uganda!

Our conference meeting room in tropical Uganda!

Our Coordinators range from 12 years to less than 1 year experience with our program and so that sharing between coordinators was rich and welcome. I also had chances to share my thoughts and experiences from the office side of things.

“I met with veteran coordinators of SBF who had a lot of successful stories,” Wambui wrote after the conference. “Just listening to them on how they try to conduct their training is something that I will take back with me. There is need to mentor the groups more before giving the initial $100.”

A Focus on Sustainability

One of our most vibrant discussions was about how to coach groups about conducting their new business with an eye toward sustainability; focusing on the long-term, rather than short-term activities that will leave the family in the same state of poverty. Ofonime Nkoko, SIA SBF Coordinator in Abak, Nigeria also highlighted how he will focus more on mentoring, “This training is very helpful to me. The areas to be noted most are: the mindset preparation; the need and the right time to give out the money; the demand, investment, reinvestment, sustainably, and Share the Gift theory.

Sharing the Gift

Seeing how the SBF program is implemented in each unique community situation (rural or city, in different countries) was part of the fullness of the conversation. “It was helpful to know there are several ways of Sharing the Gift e.g. mentoring, training others on certain skills, etc.” wrote Wambui, the newest coordinator in attendance.


Wambui and Canaan during a tea break between conference sessions.

Canaan, whose community in Malawi has a thriving culture of Sharing the Gift for SIA participants reflected, “I learned how Sharing the Gift implementation can spur more community empowerment and development.”

Dennis Kiprop, SBF Coordinator in Eldoret, Kenya captured the enthusiasm of the group and our willingness to learn from each other in his evaluation, “The time at the conference was good. The discussions in the mornings as a team were especially helpful and encouraging. I learned from the other coordinators and from Tanya and Boyd to be effective coordinator in creating sustainable business groups to the point of Sharing the Gift. We can do it better in the future as coordinators!

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