Age is Nothing But a Number

Labour market insertion, Entrepreneurial ecosystems
"Gender is nothing but an invisible barrier too"

52-year-old Catherine Auma Ashiali was an unlikely candidate for the Swisscontact Skills for Life project as it mainly targeted youth, increasing their income-generating capabilities through technical, financial, life and literacy skills training. The single mother of two boys aged 23 and 25, was eager to learn how to fix mobile phones despite already running a beauty product shop. She heard about the Skills for Life project through a local implementing organisation – Lokichoggio Emuriakin Development Organization (LEDO) who were holding a mobilisation exercise in Lokichogio town – about 93 km from Kakuma town.  

Catherine at her shop

“I previously worked as a secretary for different international organisations in Lokichogio. Unfortunately, all the projects they initiated came to an end, and I was left jobless. Since I still needed to provide for my family, I did my research and decided to venture into the sale of beauty products and phone accessories as the demand was high and supply limited. My business was doing well until competition started creeping up. This naturally affected my income flow as the community now had several options to choose from. I had to think of other ways of making money.”

In her daily interactions with clients, she noticed a common challenge many of them were struggling to solve.

"Lokichogio is a very dusty town, and many phones were not working efficiently because of the internal dust build-up. My curiosity led me to find a solution to this problem even though I was not a trained technician. I would accept client’s phones, open them up at the back and blow the dust out. After that, majority of the phones would work just fine. This helped me gain some trust in the community as I got many referrals through word of mouth. I became eager to learn more about repairing mobile phones and even travelled to the capital city, Nairobi, to enrol for a course. Unfortunately, I could only identify one that would take a year in training. This was a very long time for me to be away from my family and business, so I did not go for it. The announcement of the Skills for Life training was timely, but I needed to convince the implementing organisation that despite my age, I was enthusiastic and determined.”  

After a month of constant persuasion, Catherine’s wish as granted. LEDO consulted Swisscontact and allowed her to register for the 3-month mobile repair course, and she was thrilled. “My enrolment to the course fueled a fire inside me. I needed to prove that they had not made a wrong choice selecting me. I strongly wanted to succeed.”

She was able to do her 3-month training in 2017.

Catherine fixes a phone

“We were 25 in the learning group, and only two of us were female. At first, my group members made fun of me, wondering if I’d be able to do much with the skill. They would make comments suggesting that I was too old to handle a screwdriver, let alone see the small parts of the phone. However, this did not deter me. I told them to wait and judge me at the finish line. It was a hard balance – closing my shop for a few hours each morning to attend the training sessions, but today, I get great fulfilment saying that I am the only one from the learning group earning a reasonable living from the skill.”

There were a few problems she faced on her way to where she is today.

“We graduated then we formed a business group and a savings group. Swisscontact donated some inputs which we used during the training to give us a head start in our business operations, but things didn’t work out well. Not every group member was willing to sacrifice as much as I was to ensure the success of the business. With time, we faced a lot of internal conflicts, and even with the guidance of the Swisscontact project team, we were not able to resolve all our issues. You see, it’s complicated to work towards a goal as a group if all the members are not on the same page. I decided to get my customers and work for myself. Since the inputs provided by Swisscontact were to be used by the group, I chose to save and invest in my own.”

Catherine cheerfully performs her role

Blending the old with the new

Catherine added her phone repair business to her already existing business.

“I now fix phones from the back of my beauty product shop and sell various phone accessories as well like motherboards, screens, phone cases, screen protectors, earphones, among other items. I have regular customers. Even when I go away to the capital city for a while, they say they can’t give their phones to anyone else. Their loyalty means everything to me as they would rather send the phone to me by road or flight for me to repair. I believe the quality of my work and my honesty have helped me increase my client base as if I do not know how to fix a problem, I am usually forthright, and I believe they appreciate that.”

Catherine's shop 

Learning never stops

“We were taught how to repair feature phones which today, are not as common as smartphones. To remain relevant and marketable, I have tasked myself to learn something new about mobile phone repair each day. I use the internet to learn, and I’m quite pleased with how knowledgeable I have become. I remember the first time I tried to replace a smartphone screen. I was overconfident and ended up spoiling the part. It was so painful to buy a replacement with my own money. That is the day I realised that despite being knowledgeable, mistakes still happen, and I always need to be cautious and not presume.”

‘Beyond da Horrizon’ is the name Catherine gave her shop. It covers all aspects of her business, which is thriving.

“I serve about 100 customers a month, give or take, and on a good month earn between CHF 273 and CHF 365 from both businesses – mobile repair and beauty product sales. I joined a savings group where I contribute CHF 5 a month. I want to grow my business. I want to slowly get out of beauty products and focus on repairs alone as they promise to be more profitable since mobile phones have become so entrenched in our lives.”

Receiving book and phones for repair 

Apart from the practical skills she learnt courtesy of the Skills for Life project, Catherine admits that the entrepreneurship training she underwent was also beneficial. “I learnt a lot about running my own business. I was never good at record-keeping, but I learnt its importance and how to go about it seamlessly, and I’ve been able to keep doing it successfully to date.”

Her organisation is noticeable in the manner she receives mobile phones from her clients. She first asks them what problem they are experiencing and counterchecks the stated issue. She then takes note of the state of the received phone – checking the battery, side buttons and even cracks. She pens down all the critical information in her receiving book, gives back the sim card and memory card to the client before labelling the phone and having them countersign that all information recorded is accurate.

Catherine’s persistence in participating in the project proves that age is nothing but a number and that old dogs can learn new tricks. “I learnt something new and wouldn’t trade that experience for anything because it has helped me diversify my income. I have gained respect in the community, and many even refer to me as Grandmother Technician as I have proved myself as a reliable and trustworthy service provider.”

Catherine attends to a client

Promoting Life Skills and Livelihoods - Skills for Life (S4L)

Skills for Life is currently in its third phase of implementation. It seeks to strengthen the income-generating capabilities of youth from the host and refugee communities in Kakuma by enhancing their technical, financial, life and literacy skills. Skills for Life is financed by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) and implemented by Swisscontact.