Digitising Kenya’s informal workforce 

Wednesday, January 25th, 2023 10:06 | By
Fundis during one of its artisans training sessions in Mombasa. PD/CLIFFORD AKUMU

In 2017, Alex Kamanga Liwali had just transitioned from working as a paralegal intern in a law firm to a sales lead for a tech company. His two friends, with a background in building and construction, then working as site managers for big construction companies would endlessly complain about how hard it was to recruit the right construction skills for their projects.

He later realised that most of the time, informal workers did not have a resume that one could crosscheck and validate the skills they said they had.

In trying to find a way to allow real estate developers and clients find the right artisan with the right skills, tools and one that could be trusted with a clients home or workplace, Kamanga developed an application called Fundis, a Kiswahili word for artisans. His start-up was established in 2019.

“We set out to build a “LinkedIn” for the informal workforce in Kenya. We have only begun with artisans. The vision we have is to build this for all types of services in the informal sector, where 80 per cent of Kenya’s workforce is today,” Kamanga starts.

This innovation has a current network of 2,000 artisans spread across the country. They include plumbers, painters, welders, electricians, and carpenters. It’s helping solve problems such as shortage of professional craftsmen, how they connect with prospective customers, and their transition from informality to becoming functional service businesses.

 How it works

Kamanga explains that for customers, the service is accessible as an easy-to-use web application on any device through www.fundis.co.ke. For artisans, it is an application available on the Google play store.

To book a service, one needs to select the required service on their smartphone and key in a description. You’d also need to attach a picture of the problem you need fixed. “It’s a free easy-to-use service,” he affirms.

He adds that the company makes commission from the artisans’ labour charge for each job done, facilitation commissions from artisans’ insurance premiums, and service charges from loans extended to the artisans. The team will then connect you with an artisan who will give a job quotation.

“It allows the artisans to do quotations, invoices, and receipts for jobs we give them and their own jobs, and against those digitised transactions they can get micro-credits,” Kamanga explains.

Also, Fundis gives them access to the ‘Fundi Mjanja’ insurance coverage and telemedicine services. The cover is co-developed with MaishaPoa, and covers the artisans’ health, their dependants, accidents, tools, last respect/funeral expenses, and workshops.

The artisans also access health facilities and services from Health X and Sasa Doctor from the app. “For both types of users, all we need is your name and phone number. Any artisan can use the app, but to get jobs, you have to attend our skills days and demonstrate what you can do,” he notes.

Youth unemployment

In Kenya today, approximately 800,000 youth attempt to join the labour market every year. Unfortunately, only 15 per cent find a formal job. As a result, young people are making ends meet in all sorts of side hustles.

The juakali sector, Kamanga adds, is one of the fronts absorbing young people in their numbers. There are about seven million informal enterprises (99 per cent unlicensed) employing close to 16 million Kenyans today.

He says, “At Fundis, we approximate that of these informal workers, four million are skilled trade professionals (artisans). They mostly face supplier and customer concentration risks, they have a challenge accessing credit, there are non-unionised, and there exists little to no social protection mechanisms for them. For customers at home, at work and in-between, it’s just as hard to find and hire them.”

With start-ups such as Fundis trying to answer the puzzle of the country’s youth unemployment challenge, Kamanga notes that this quest has had its share of challenges.

“The lack of agreed-upon definitions of what it takes to be a good plumber, carpenter, mason, or mechanic makes our work a hard nut to crack. There are many statutory authorities working in silos to solve the question of skills accreditation, grading, and certification. And there are a dozen more involved in upskilling and training,” he says.

He poses: “How do you differentiate a plumber with a six months diploma, another with three years higher diploma, and another who has 15 years of experience, but with only a primary school education?”

Fundis has adopted a two-pronged approach. On one side, it focuses on the skills side, and on the other, building skills alliance for the purposes of identifying, upskilling, and certifying workers before they are verified as ready for jobs on the platform.

“For skills assessment, upskilling, and certification of workers, we have partnered with the Kenya Association For Certified Training providers for industry (Kacet), Ajira for soft skills training and National Construction Authority (NCA) for skills accreditation,” explains Kamanga.

He further intimates that most workers are still untrustworthy and it’s a challenge to keep weeding out the wrong artisans either due to trust or character issues. “And this makes assessment and training an expensive affair,” he notes.

Relevance and growth

Fundis hopes to extend its services to cover all of Kenya’s urban regions and beyond and to include more services in its app’s offerings.

“In the next three years, we would want to cover all of Kenya’s urban regions and expand to Dar es Salaam and Addis Ababa. We see a lot of similarities in those markets with what we have in Kenya. We also want to have established centres of skills excellence where we can intense artisan-focused all-around empowerment together with local and global corporate partners.

“We would want to run a skills exchange programme where you can take artisans to other countries for exposure and bring artisans from those markets to work with ours here in Kenya as well,” he says in ending.

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