Michael Ouma is a Kibera-based craftsman and businessman who makes toy buses to make a living. He spoke to SDE about his craft and why he is desperate to meet Julius Ong’era of Nyamira Express.
Why are you so eager to meet Julius Ong’era?
First of all I want to gift him with the mini Nyamira Express bus which I crafted recently. It is one of my favourite buses because it looks so sleek and polished. Moreover, I admire Ong’era because he is an astute businessman and I draw a lot of inspiration from him.
What inspired you to start crafting toy buses?
When I was a child, I had an uncle who would make many admirable crafts including cars. He taught me how to make them and I never looked back.
What was the first bus you made?
It was a very popular bus back then called Kuega which used to ply the Nairobi-Kisumu route. I was eight years old and in Class Four. A family friend bought if for Sh400. I was so excited because this was the first time I earned my own money, plus it was at a time when Sh400 was a lot of money!
How did you spend the money?
My parents took the cash and bought me very many sweets. I think they also realised it would be tricky for a child to earn so much money, so they warned me against making any more toys. However this changed when I dropped out of Class Eight due to lack of school fees. My parents set up a stall for me in Makina area of Kibera and I started making and selling beaded ornaments. But all I wanted to do was make toy buses.
Did you pursue the bead-work business?
I did for a while but quit to make buses full-time. I made the Akamba bus first and since then I have created more than 300 buses, trucks and trailers.
What is the process of assembling a full bus?
I start by purchasing the materials from Shauri Moyo market. The body is made of iron sheet and I also need glue and paints. Next, I make the draft and trace it on the iron sheet. Then I measure, cut and assemble the parts using rivets. The tyres are made from slippers while lights are plastic or glass chips from broken vehicle lamps.
How do you manage to get the minute details of each bus you make, do you take photos?
Actually no. I have a photographic memory and I register the design on my mind as soon as I see it. I only take photos where details are very many. Most of my customers are friends and neighbours who admire the buses I make. Sometimes they take photos of their favourite buses and bring them to me, or they tell me the specific bus and I go out to look for it.
Of all the buses you have crafted, which is your favourite?
The Kenya Bus Service (KBS) Executive which used to ply long-distance routes back then. My second best was the orange Stagecoach bus which had stunning colours. My next project is the long City Shuttle mass transit bus which looks like a train.
How much do you sell each bus?
A bus goes for Sh2,000, a trailer truck is Sh2,500, a van Sh1,000 and a motorbike is Sh500. The most prominent customer I have ever sold to is the owner of Garex Express which plies the Nairobi-Garissa route. I crafted for him a bus, but as soon as his son saw it he immediately bought it. So I made another identical one and sold it to him; he has displayed it in his office.
Are the earnings enough to sustain you?
Certainly not because I have a big family and also it takes a long time to complete one item. I work as a driver in industrial area and this helps.
What challenges do you face in your craft work?
The biggest challenge is that I do not have a machine to cut the iron sheet with. This is very challenging because the very small details need accuracy. If I get one, I would make more buses.