The iron lady of Migori

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Jua Kali industry has become an integral part of Kenya’s economy. It’s no longer prevailed by men but also women who are going against all odds to fit in the industry, become independent and fend for their families.

Under the scorching sun and hot tin roofs, meet 43-year-old  Mary Otieno, and her employers hammering tirelessly in the noisy Pandi area in Suna east Migori County, in our quest to get more insight of her story we decide to spend some time with her and dig through to where it all started.

It all begun 20 years ago after she lost her husband. It was a devastating moment for her and her children, taking into account that she had no permanent job to fend for her family, she decided to open up a tailoring business, but she realized that the business was not providing enough for her family that’s when she decided to be bold enough to venture into jua kali industry.

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“After the loss of my husband life became difficult I had to find other means of survival for my children, therefore I started tailoring which unfortunately dint meet my expectations, then I saw an opportunity in the informal sector ‘jua kali’, I did not hesitate to embrace it since then it has become my avenue for financial independence and job creation, she says,”

Having no experience in the industry, Mary started as a painter she later brought other Jua Kali Artisan from Nairobi and Kisumu who trained her how to craft various kinds of jua kali products.

In 2005, Mary started her own Jua kali sector in Suna east Migori County, which has rapidly grown leading to job creation among young people through which they are able to archive their dream of financial independence

According one of the workers Nelson Ogwamba, he gives credits to Mary for teaching him and his counter parts the art of handicraft, with that they are able to provide for the needs of their families and in future start their own businesses.   


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“When I first came here I had no experience but through Mary, I have obtained skills which have enabled me to earn a living and provider for my family, with that am sincerely grateful to her and her efforts of ensuring that we young people in Migori have a chance of learning crafts and getting employment, ’says Ogwamba.

Like any other business Mary faces various challenges such as insufficient capital to purchase more materials thus leading to loss of customers.

“insufficient capital is one of the challenges i face in this business, especially during back to school seoson, a client may come to purchase metal boxes but unfortunately they find there are no variety of metal boxes to choose from and with that you end up losing your customers”

However, as much as the business has its ups and down,the mother of four says that the business has brought much profit which has facilitated her children’s education, basic needs, and business expenses. 

Mary’s hard work and resiliency has seen her business diversify to different regions in the country such as Kisii town, Homabay,Sirare, Suba kuria, Nyandiwa, Kehancha,Mtomaro,and Mwanza in Tanzania, this has made her become an epitome of change to her fellow women and young people in Migori County

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Jua kali sector has recently transformed into a safe haven  for many  people who have been affected by unemployment crisis in the country,because  it creates job securities for many families as it removes reliance on the elusive dream of getting white collar jobs. 

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