In the deepest recesses of Nyamirambo, Abassi hammers away at a metal object that is amorphous but slowly taking shape. With a minimum of tools and capital he toils away in the hot sun for meagre rewards, sadly if Abassi was in Europe he would be a skilled professional; however, in Africa he is at the bottom of the pile.
Though he has no formal training he undertook an apprenticeship under his uncle for 12 years before he branched out on his own when he started his own family.
A 12 year apprenticeship is something to be proud of even if compared to the formal sector. This is because he has skills in welding, metal work, engineering and machine making.
In this modern globalised economy, where cheap goods criss-cross borders, keeping local artisans in business is important; it helps maintain local capability and capacity even though Chinese or Indian goods are cheaper in comparison to locally made products.
Abassi follows a long tradition in Rwanda where blacksmith played a central role in society and the means of production. They made spearheads for the army, hoes and ploughs for the farmers, household utensils and decorative artistic objects for the home.
“We used to get orders for all kinds of things; gates, windows, pots and pans but now we rarely get orders. We mainly make charcoal stoves for the home, bigger items are more expensive to make and rarely make a profit. There is a lot of competition but many of the artisans are not qualified and do substandard work,” said Abassi as he reflected on the tight race for customers, indeed it is a wonder to see how well he does considering his surroundings.
His workshop is on a sloping hill and is often subject to the elements as last years rain nearly washed it away, his tools are rudimentary, but his determination and optimism irrepressible.
“When I get proper tools and a workshop then it will be profitable, right now I am postponing building a house while I try to build a good workshop.”
Abassi has even taken on an apprentice of his own who is an orphan and I asked whether he would want his son to carry on the tradition.
“Only if he studies it at school, I don’t want him sweating in the sun all day. He better gets a piece of paper qualifying him as an engineer, because if I had that then I wouldn’t be here.”
Vocational training is essential to developing a skills base for our nation; we will need to have trained artisans as well as white-collar professional.
In a bid to formalise the informal sector artisans are gathering in guilds and trade unions in order to standardise practises, to introduce training, introduce taxation and represent what is known as the Jua Kali sector.
What we need to do in order to industrialise is to harness the skill of someone like Abassi, put him in a factory and give him 8 hours of work a day.
We need the industrial capacity; most of the developing world has been de-industrialising since the 80’s with the rise of the Asia tigher- making goods cheaper than any emerging country can.
At least when the USA and EU buy Chinese goods; they still have the capability to produce those goods themselves, but the developing world cannot say the same. By supporting your local Jua Kali artisan you are helping develop your own industrial capacity.