The ratio of Kenyans with indoor plumbing may be low but another 21 percent have piped water into the main yard and this may be the demand that should support the need for more plumbers. It is not evident that Kenya really has an acute shortage of plumbers for a number of reasons. If plumbing were such a rare skill, I would expect the wages of the village plumber to be much higher than a common profession as agriculture or motorcycle transportation. It is not evident from basic employment data that the plumber earns much more than people in the substitute jobs mentioned.
However, if the data doesn’t tell the right story, then I would expect plumbers to raise their wages from the services they provide to the small number of clients and supplement this by teaching apprentices. This is not evident from the roll of courses taught by many colleges except for the village polytechnics. Because I am sure that plumbers wouldn’t be leaving money on the table, that they do not do this suggests that there isn’t much money to be made here.
The combination of a small number of potential clients, absence of higher wages and the costs of apprenticeship all point towards the fact that plumbing is not such a high paying job, precisely because the demand is limited to urban areas. Put more simply, plumbing skills are not scarce and the market does not pay a premium for that reason. The nudge towards training of more plumbers by itself will not be a successful policy.
Adam Smith, that famous Scottish scholar of political economy provided an apposite explanation for the creation and distribution of employment. His summary is contained in Book 1, chapter three of his most famous publication under the title: That The Division of Labour is Determined by the Extent of the Market. In essence, for a country that has only 30 percent of the population with piped water in the home or as a shared facility in the yard, there is hardly enough demand for plumbers who provide those services in urban areas while only a foolish plumber would situate the business in Siaya. Let's get the water first and thereby provide a reason for villagers in Yala Town to find use for plumbers.
Kwame Owino is the chief executive officer of the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA-Kenya), a public policy think tank based in Nairobi.