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

By Mark Wiens 33 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?”

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

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  • John wachira

    1 year 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

    2 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

  • Jon Cloke

    2 years ago

    We came across the Jua Kali system in Nakuru in Kenya where the guys in the engineering sector were reproducing cheap versions of hammer mills, threshers, posho mills, etc. – absolutely mind-blowing! Quality ranges from really very crude to really very good.. Speaking of which, we want to find a way of using this kind of machinery with DC motors to replace the AC ones they’ve currently got so we can run them off solar hubs. If anyone knows where DC motors could be sourced in Kenya or close by in Africa, we’d be very grateful! [email protected]

    • kasifa Puffett

      11 months 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.

  • Emmanuel BAHATI Cimanuka

    3 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

      11 months 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

    3 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

      2 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

    3 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

    • Mark Wiens

      3 years ago

      Thank you Nick, really appreciate it and thank you for sharing!

  • DB

    4 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.

    • Mark Wiens

      4 years ago

      Hi DB, I don’t think all Jua Kali workers take part in actions like that. Also, their creativity is incredible.

  • chepngetich lily

    5 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

    • Mark Wiens

      5 years ago

      Hey, glad you enjoy this sector so much, all the best!

  • theKing

    7 years ago

    Living with insufficient money makes your brain race, and come up with some useful tactics for survival. These people are survival kings. We have to learn from them, not to be such consumer society. 🙂 Great post.

    • Mark Wiens

      7 years ago

      You’re right about that, when there’s a lack of somethings, people find ways to survive and get around it. One cannot underestimate human creativity!

  • robin

    7 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…

    • Mark Wiens

      7 years ago

      Yah, so right Robin – and you know about the jua kali’s in Nairobi and throughout Africa too. Their motto is “never say die!”

  • Jeremy Branham

    7 years ago

    What the expression in Kenya for “You might be a redneck if…” 🙂

    • Mark Wiens

      7 years ago

      Hehe, I just happen to see an innocent little Thai kid the other day wearing a shirt that read in big letters – “Git er Done.” Of course he had no idea what it meant…but that’s what gave me the title!

  • The Travel Chica

    7 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.

    • Mark Wiens

      7 years ago

      Haha! Thanks for sharing Steph!
      With super glue, string, safety pins and duct tape a lot of things are possible!

  • inka

    7 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.

    • Mark Wiens

      7 years ago

      Thanks Inka – no problem!
      A lot of my Kenyan and other African friends are some of the most resourceful and creative people I know. I’ve learned a lot useful “jua kali” techniques from them!