Thursday, September 21, 2006

Styling Up a Jua Kali Garage

Today fed up with my overpriced town mechanic and needing some specialized service on my car I decided to try out a “jua kali[1]” garage. My friend gave me the instructions to get to the place and after a few wrong turns I pulled into a muddy ‘mabati[2]’-fenced garage with a boldly drawn Mercedes-Benz three star on its gate. I was apprehensive but I had been assured the best mechanics this side of Kenya would be found within those tin walls. Four hours and perfectly working car later I found myself unsure whether to agree or disagree with my friend.

Great customer care, consistent service, and a professional set-up attract me most to my town mechanic. The jua kali mechanic lacks all the above but sufficiently compensates with sublime technical skill and competitive pricing. What put me off though most was that the jua kali mechanic takes on the role of administrator, sales man, customer care rep, and mechanic at the same time. He ends up giving your car staccato attention as he shifts from tightening a bolt, to buying spare parts, to appeasing a delayed client, to negotiating for a job.

Body repair work at the garage

As I waited, frustrated at how slowly the job was moving and consoling myself with the few thousands I had saved, the entrepreneurial spirit seized me. How many other similarly dissatisfied car owners like myself are out there: wary of the expensive town mechanic whose spare parts you can count on being genuine but whose skill in fixing them you can’t; or those willing to put up with technically superior jua kali technicians with great quotations for a job but who need to be baby sat and change prices on the fly?

The more I thought about it the more excited I became, I quickly got my laptop out of the backseat and started on a proposal for setting up a garage which would combine the best of both types of garages. There are hundreds of thousands of cars in Nairobi and every car owner I’ve spoken to has gripes with their mechanic. Its an entrepreneur’s dream: there’s an identifiable need, a large customer base, and an existing product that is a candidate for disruptive technology. I’ve posted the first half of the proposal below, and I’d like to invite you to give your comments and suggestions. Please note that your suggestions shall be publicly available to all.



The Garage (the “Garage”) is an automobile repair shop located in the outskirts of Nairobi city. The Garage currently occupies land that has been leased out. The presumed owner of the Garage is a senior mechanic plying his trade at the Garage. It is very likely however that the real owner is another individual is not involved in the day-to-day activities of the Garage. It has been witnessed by this author and confirmed by the aforementioned senior mechanic that the Garage faces severe management problems. It also appears on the face of it that the Garage is not being utilized to full capacity. This presents an opportunity for the investors to enter the automotive repair industry with: a functioning garage, a strategic location, large pool of human resources, and little capital investment.


The area where the Garage is located is home to several different automobile-based businesses including: petrol stations, used car dealerships, garages, and auto spares shops. There are at least four other garages in the immediate vicinity with an estimated combined workforce of fifty mechanics.

The Garage has the following organizational structure: a senior mechanic at the top, other mechanics who are employed on a permanent basis and semi-skilled handy-men who are recruited for one-off jobs as the need arises. The senior mechanic is also responsible for management of the garage which involves: sales and marketing, administrative issues e.g. receiving money, purchases, and customer care. As he is also the foremost mechanic this has led to a situation where he unproductively splits his time between his managerial and technical portfolios. From observation it appears that his managerial skills are also worse for the wear.

The Garage does not issue receipts for payments made to them and will ask the customer to meet any expenses incurred as the work is being done. This includes the likely suspects: petroleum, spares, oil; but also includes things such as: torch cells (to power a torch as work is done at night), paying a petrol station attendant for use of his pressurized air nozzle, sandpaper. It is not clear what the mechanics do when a customer is not available to pay for these impromptu costs. The end result is a feeling by the customer that he is being cheated, as he ends up paying more than he was initially quoted for.

During the author’s observations of the workings of the Garage it was noticed that the progress of work was very slow on the author’s and others’ jobs. The initial view was that the Garage was stretched thin and understaffed. However this view was hard to reconcile with the fact that on numerous occasions the mechanics were absent from the Garage. The more likely reason for the slow work and “overworked” nature of the mechanics may be hypothesized as thus:

  1. the mechanics are not punctual in reporting to work, and have a large number of AWOLs;
  2. where the mechanics meet an obstacle they will abandon the job and possibly transfer it to another mechanic;
  3. the mechanics will not work on a job unless there is pressure from the customer and possibly his presence;
  4. the mechanics in many instances do not know how to perform the job given, and spend more time diagnosing other problems than fixing the identified problem

The Garage was observed to have five to ten mechanics, who were working on two to three cars at any given time. The nature of the work being carried out included: gearbox repair, body work and spray painting, and engine repair. The Garage however had in its compound approximately 15-20 cars, some of which appeared to have been in the Garage for a very long time evidenced by their peeling paintwork and layers of dust. Most of these cars were not worked on by the mechanics during the author’s period of observation.

The owner of the Garage intimated that at its peak the Garage earned KShs. 300,000 per month. It is not known whether this figure was of sales, gross profits, or net profits. As the garage operates only on weekdays and Saturday this would translate to roughly K.Shs. 11,500 a day. I came to know of the Garage after a friend referred me to a mechanic there when I complained to him about a car problem that my town mechanic had been unable to fix. The Garage in the senior mechanic was touted as having the foremost specialist in the repair of the specific problems of the my automobile. It is not clear though whether the Garage has an established system of referrals. It is not known at this time whether the Garage has any sales and marketing strategy.

The Garage was observed to have the following assets:[3]

  1. a quarter-acre property off a main road.
  2. an approximately 1000 sq. ft building complete with roof, walls, and windows and partitioned into approximately three rooms;
  3. a three-walled building with a two-story high roof with approximately 1000 sq. ft. of floor space;
  4. office furniture (heavily worn);
  5. spray paint machine;
  6. car batteries;
  7. hand-held tools including: spanners and pliers;

The question I pose to you is: From these observations, what strategy can be employed to convert the Garage into a leading automotive repair shop?

[1] Literally hot sun. Used to refer to entrepreneurs in the informal sector

[2] Tin sheets commonly used for roofing but can also be used for fencing

[3] It was not possible to verify that all these assets actually belonged to the Garage


Harry Karanja said...

Ways to solve the Jua Kali Garage's problems:

The strategy can be divided into:
1. setting up management systems for:
a. administration and accounting
b. customer care
c. human resources
2. drawing up and implementing a sales & marketing strategy
3. attracting and recruiting high quality technical staff
4. improving and beautifying the infrastructure
5. increasing the asset base in order to increase work capacity

Harry Karanja said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

There are oppourtunites to provide services to the growing middle class that are, in my opinion, seriously under exploited. Services like the garage one you mention.
Middle class people will seek a good garage service with reassurances about workmanship and quality of service. I am talking about motorists unwilling or unable to go to the often expensive dealership garages but can still afford to pay for good quality work. Because there really isn't a choice, they go to juakali garages.
Finding a 'good' garage then becomes every motorist's cause while the 'good' they mean should really be the basics. There's a niche here to be exploited.

Unknown said...

I am equally thrilled about this idea. I have thought of it before. Infact not only has my expereience with the likes of the 'big boys' garages been frustrating but also the 'jua kali' ones.
Of my concern is;
Excellent and faul-free service
Impecable integrity at point of service
Lowest cost for such a service anywhere (read 'blue-ocean' pricing for a spice of management fad terms)- Therefore start with the target pricing first before thinking of the cost , then work backwards and innovate on process streamlining to reach that target cost.
Seek to partner with some relevant entities like Insurance companies,Second hand vehicle dealers and corporations for both sales referrals and financing of repairs .
Invest in Training and development of super-mechanics with an option of a future spin-off into specialised mechanics training institute (This has been Kenyan's middle level college role but at their current shape they'll take time to match up).
See if a franchising model can work for growth in different towns within the COMESA region but start with a couple of the startup-owned ones to instill a high-level of control to ensure quality before selling out franchises. You can even continue with the ownership if no credible franchisees come along.
Invest inintially and later on superior processes improvement through technology acquisitions.
Finally diversify into other moving machinery servicing like commercials and bikes.

Please contact me on this idea at