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Deaf carpenter Francis Kaleli on furniture, failure and following your dreams

12 Jan 2022Empowering People
3 minute read

Francis Kaleli, a carpenter from Machakos County in Kenya, has an unusual way of taking new orders from customers.

He asks them to write down – or even draw – the furniture they want in a notebook he takes with him everywhere. He shows them his portfolio to inspire them and uses his phone to show them designs on Google and Facebook.

While this is a great way to help customers feel involved in the creative process, there is also a very practical reason for it. Safaricom customer Francis lost his hearing when he fell ill with malaria at seven years old. He found a passion for carpentry early in life – but negative perceptions about his disability held him back.

“After I finished my training, I searched for a job and it was so hard for me to get one,” he signs. “I kept on trying to search for a job, which was very difficult. I was unemployed for five years.”

Francis in his workshop painting one of his creations

Francis in his workshop painting one of his creations

His parents helped him start his own business, giving him a plot of land where his workshop is located today. He also took up a job as a caretaker for his brother’s rental houses. But even with this extra help, he ran out of money. With a huge pang of regret, he temporarily abandoned his dream and moved to Nairobi, where he worked as a laundry attendant at a hospital.

While working there, he borrowed some money to buy carpentry equipment. For 16 years, Francis juggled his laundry attendant job with refining his carpentry skills. “It wasn’t easy, and a lot of clients couldn’t believe I was doing both jobs,” he signs.

Eventually, Francis managed to leave his job at the hospital and go back to his business. Back in the village, he employed three people who are also deaf.

Francis using a machine in his workshop to chop a piece of wood

Francis using a machine in his workshop to chop a piece of wood

He called his business Franzlina, “because my name is Francis and my wife’s name is Liza. I combined the two names,” he explains. His wife is also deaf, and their two children - aged eight and 13 - know sign language.

Technology helps Francis operate his business efficiently and grow his customer base. He uses M-PESA, a mobile money service established by Vodafone and Safaricom, to receive payments from his customers. “It’s very helpful,” he signs. He also uses social media for marketing.

Francis’ skills have earned him loyal customers - and even helped him secure government tenders.

“I won a tender from the government in Machakos County. I applied and was lucky to be selected,” he signs. “I now have a Local Purchase Order and I make tables for government schools. Sometimes it takes a long time for me to get the money. But it’s not just me, so I’m patient,” he smiles.

Francis’s perseverance and passion for his craft helped him succeed against the odds. “It doesn’t matter how many times you fail at something,” he signs. “What matters is that you try and try again."

  • Digital skills
  • Digital Society
  • Empowering People
  • Resilience
  • Social Contract
  • Technology
  • Viewpoint

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