Jua Kali – The Informal Kenyan Sector for “Git Er Done”

By Mark Wiens 13 Comments
Jua Kali Businesses in Nairobi, Kenya
Jua Kali Businesses in Nairobi, Kenya

If you’re unfamiliar with the term “git er done,” you can read what it means right here.

What is a Jua Kali?

The literal translation of Jua Kali in Kenyan Kiswahili is “fierce sun“; the actually meaning is the Kenyan word for “git er done,” or a person, businessman, or entrepreneur that can undoubtedly fix or practically do anything upon request.

Under the beating rays of the equatorial sunshine, shaded by plastic bags or at best beneath an antique sheet of mabati (tin roofing), jua kali entrepreneurs make it their mission to keep things alive and working.

Their modest offices are on the sides of muddy streets, many within the labyrinth of slum districts like Kibera or Dandora of Nairobi, Kenya.

Jua kali’s are street doctors, keeping things alive and working.

Jua Kali Mechanics
Jua Kali Mechanics from Above

Jua Kali Creativity

The realm of creativity reaches to the ends of the earth.

Have a petrol leak on your car?  That can be patched up by rubbing a bar of soap on the wound until it plugs up.

Did your 99 cent flip flops break at the toe?  Don’t throw them away, they can be fixed by a jua kali.

Have some items of junk that are undeniably useless to anyone?  Think again, if a jua kali can’t eventually find a way to get it working, he will surely use it to aid in fixing another thing.

Quality Work?

Along with the positive benefits one can derive from the use of cheap jua kali labor, it’s not always fun and games.

Some jua kali goals are to repair or create for the short term benefit of the user, NOT necessarily for long term sustainability.

Masters of jury rigging, jua kali work is notorious for looking great, and then falling apart the moment you get a little ways from the workshop.

Kakuma Jua Kali
Jua Kali Tire Repair in Kakuma, Kenya

There’s no legal contract involved when seeking street expertise, no guarantee or warranty that things will actually function. Jua kali’s offer solutions to problems — often at rock bottom prices.

With a Kenyan economy that can’t support jobs for the entire population, there’s a giant informal sector of expertise, the jua kali field.

Where professional education is scarce, expert niche experience and hands on learning is what takes over.

Throughout Kenya there are millions of jua kali business owners, in the city of Nairobi alone there is an estimate of well over 500,000 self employed jua kali experts in all forms of imaginable fields.

How Does the Jua Kali Sector Financially Churn?

It’s one of the African cultural values that is the most powerful: community and the high value of others. 

Mary Njeri Kinyanjui from the UN Research Institute for Social Development explains that a common thought in Africa is, “I am because we are, we are because I am.”

Jua Kali Toilet Store
Jua Kali Toilet Store in Nairobi, Kenya

It’s not uncommon for jua kali’s in a range of fields to pool together into a group and financially help each other out, all donating a week of profits and lending it to a friend in order to purchase necessary equipment to get started.

The jua kali networks function on a rotating schedule, one member collects all the money for the entire week and then the next week’s profits go the the next person in the group.

The creativity of jua kali’s in Kenya is sometimes mind boggling; things that you didn’t even imagine could work again, somehow manage to keep breathing.

Their complex yet simple model of business offers insights into the cultural reality of Kenya and the employment that so many rely upon day after day.

Are You a Jua Kali?

As you travel or wherever you live, things break and get old, and spending money (or saving while you travel) will inevitably be at the forefront of your interests.

Before throwing something away, ask yourself, “Could I jua kali it?”  Maybe it won’t last long, but hey, you might be surprised at the value of being resourceful and making quick fixes and not having to buy something new!

What things have you been able to “jua kali?”

13 comments. I'd love to hear from you!

  • kasifa Puffett

    6 years ago

    I can advise on a DC motor there is two things you can do either buy a step down transformer or they can change to the engine and use fuel which is cheaper.

  • John wachira

    7 years ago

    Jua kali is the best way to go.. By creating employment for the so many youth leaving school..we need exchange programs and mentors

  • Carl Olsen

    7 years ago

    Larry the Cable guy told me to google “how to say Get er done in Nairobi” and this is the first thing that came up…. so here i am

  • Emmanuel BAHATI Cimanuka

    8 years ago

    I’d like to know what are the conditions to become Jua Kali Member. I’m located in Bukavu town of South-Kivu Province, in Democratic Republic of COngo

    • kasifa Puffett

      6 years ago

      Hi you can become a Jua Kali through experience but you have to work in a professional in the areas which the Jua Kali do,

  • Margy Otiato

    8 years ago

    Am opposed to JK. It fosters corruption, poverty mentality and relegates citizens to 2nd class citizenry by the corrupt few who endorse it, to limit the majority poor from sharing the economic cake, and to control and limit their power to create wealth from the mainstream sectors. There’s no legal framework to patent or protect JK businessesbusinesses or guarantee JK products, unless am not well aware of any that exist. It limits or short changes people from seeking first hand knowledge to be creative with original ideas. Not a good idea, I believe.

    • Edwin mwangi

      7 years ago

      She said sitting from her giant mansion next to her imported car. These are just Kenyans trying to earn a living there’s no conspiracy behind it just hard working people who eat by the sweat of their brow. They don’t care whether it’s a great idea or not it’s what brings food to the table.

  • Nick Deco

    8 years ago

    Thanks Mark. I’ve really enjoyed reading your well done write-up on this sector that’s so dear to my heart though about 4 years on. I joined the sector from formal employment and I can assure you that much is happening to uplift the standards. I pity the likes of DB who really misunderstand us. I also feel he /she doesn’t have the right facts about the sector. I can freely offer him/her a fact finding tour around some of these great ventures. Come on! Let’s get on creative Jua Kali minds

  • DB

    9 years ago

    This is a pathetic whitewashing as to what Jua Kali really involves. It is stealing road signs to make tools and electrical transformers for the copper wire and oil laden with PCB’s (one of the most cancerous things known to man) which is then sold on to street vendors who use it to fry fish. Any sort of business that could actually employ anyone is unable to function simply because no one can rely upon the electrical grid being online long enough to actually get any work done. It is wholesale theft of anything and everything that benefits themselves no matter what the detriment to the rest of society. It is the problem. It is not the solution.

  • chepngetich lily

    11 years ago

    I absolutely love the jua kali sector so much.This is an area of much interest to me and that is why i decided to carry out a research project on it.Long live all the workers of this sector and may GOD bless you as u enjoy your work.Its a real blessing to be in that work-the prolific sector in the kenyan economy

  • robin

    13 years ago

    It always amazes me the things that get fixed that in wealthier nations just get thrown out. You see cars on the road in developing countries that are in breach of the laws of science…

  • The Travel Chica

    13 years ago

    I definitely Jua Kali’d my flip flops a few times with super glue. I also used a safety pin to fix a broken necklace. No need to buy new 🙂 Although I did finally toss the flops after the 4th super-gluing episode.

  • inka

    13 years ago

    I am absolutely awed by the creativity that goes into this concept. What a difference it makes to the throw way culture of the West. A lot to be learned here. Thanks for this enlightening post, Mark.