How Budalangi jobless graduate transitioned to artwork for a living

Nicholas Mbalanga, 28, turned to artwork after his degree failed to secure him a job opportunity. Busia has been experiencing staggering high rates of unemployment. PHOTO/Courtesy.

By Joseph Otieno

  • The rate of unemployment in Busia presently stands at 66.76 percent. 
  • Despite several interventions, the creation of adequate, productive, and sustainable employment continues to be the greatest economic challenge for Busia.
  • Mbalanga recalls a sorrowful and hair-raising incident one evening late last year when he and his colleagues were arrested and their fish and fishing gear confiscated by Uganda marine police while fishing in Lake Victoria. 

Despite the graduation of high numbers of learners from the university over the years, most of them have remained jobless. 

After unsuccessfully searching for employment for many years, some of them end up settling for menial jobs for a living.

This clearly explains why a majority of parents have instead opted to enroll their children in Technical and Vocational Education Training (TVET) colleges, where they would specialize in the technical courses of their choice, hence enabling them to set up their own business entities in the near future.

One such institution is Bunyala Technical and Vocational Training College in Bunyala North ward, which has enrolled scores of students pursuing diverse technical courses. 

The other one is Busagwa Polytechnic in Bunyala Central ward, which has also enrolled scores of school leavers from the area.

Apart from the two technical training institutions in Bunyala Sub-County, Bumbe Technical Training Institute, located in Funyula constituency, Samia Sub-County, has also enrolled a high population of students drawn from various parts of Busia County and the country at large since it has adequate boarding facilities. 

High unemployment level

According to the 2019 Kenya National Bureau of Statistics and the 2018-2022 County Integrated Development Plan (CIDP) data, Busia has one of the highest unemployment levels in the Lake Region Economic Bloc. 

The rate of unemployment presently stands at 66.76 percent. 

Despite several interventions, the creation of adequate, productive, and sustainable employment continues to be the greatest economic challenge for Busia.

One of the victims of the county’s high unemployment level is Nicholas Mbalanga, a 28-year-old resident of Bubamba village, Magombe West sub-location, Bunyala Central ward, Budalangi constituency of Busia County, who is still unemployed despite graduating five years ago. 

The determined youth has now turned to artwork and drawing portraits to cater to his livelihood.

Eating raw fish

Apart from the artwork and drawing of portraits, the jobless graduate has tried his hand at various income-generating activities, including fishing in Lake Victoria and sand harvesting along the banks of River Nzoia as an alternative source of earning his daily bread.

He recalls a sorrowful and hair-raising incident one evening late last year when he and his colleagues were arrested and their fish and fishing gear confiscated by Uganda marine police while fishing in Lake Victoria. 

The ruthless security officers punished them by forcing them to eat raw fish at gunpoint, threatening to shoot them dead.

Mbalaga, a Bachelor of Science Degree holder from Budalangi constituency of Busia county, doing his artworks. PHOTO/Courtesy.

He, however, escaped death by a whisker. 

He took advantage of the darkness, made a swift dive into the stormy massive lake, and managed to swim to safety, with a hail of bullets whizzing over his head. 

Unfortunately, some of his colleagues were nabbed as they attempted to swim to safety and brutally tortured before being shot at close range.

The incident discouraged Mbalanga from engaging in fishing activities in the volatile lake, hence the decision to actively engage in artwork and drawing of portraits. 

Even his parents, friends and relatives advised him to stop risking his life by venturing into the lake where scores of Kenyan fishermen have ended up losing their lives.

Almost buried alive in sand quarry

Mbalanga, who had become the talk of the village owing to the misfortunes he had undergone, faced yet another unfortunate incident.  

While harvesting sand from a quarry early this year, he was almost buried alive when the wall of the sand pit came tumbling down. 

He rushed out of the quarry, cursing the day he was born. He had been driven into these entire predicaments by the quest for employment.

In an interview with Scholar Media Africa at their Bubamba village recently, the unemployed graduate elucidated that he started engaging in artwork and drawing of portraits way back in primary school, proceeding with the same talent up to high school.

“I used to draw and sign-write on the games kits and later started working on portraits while in campus since I had been having a soft spot for art and nature. I have never taken any art course, that’s why I consider it purely an inborn talent catalyzed by passion,” he explained.

Academic background           

Mbalanga, the lastborn in a family of nine, joined Bubamba Primary School and sat for his Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) examination in 2009. 

His professional drawing skills are inborn. Here’s one of his artworks. PHOTO/Courtesy.

He qualified and was called to join John Osogo Secondary School in Port Victoria. 

He finished high school education in 2013.

The determined and hardworking student joined the University of Eldoret in Uasin Gishu County in 2014, where he undertook a Bachelor of Science in Natural Resource Management, eventually graduating in a colorful ceremony in 2018.

However, five years later, his dream of landing a decent job relating to the course he had pursued at the university turned into a pipedream, dismantling his long-term plans. 

The hardships he sailed through after coming out of the university have made him feel like he wasted his precious time going to the university.

“Had I known beforehand I would spend years and end unsuccessfully searching for a job after completing my course at the university, I would instead have joined a technical and vocational educational training institution within Busia county to specialize in a course of my choice,” regretted Mbalanga.

He says he has been purposely saving part of the proceeds from the sale of his artwork and portrait drawings to enable him to join a technical and vocational training institution.

Unpredictable market

The prices of the artwork/portraits vary depending on the size of the artwork or portraits, which are negotiable.

The cost of an A4 size portrait is being sold at KSh1500, whereas an A3 size portrait is going for KSh2000. 

Other sizes he produces and sells to his clients include sizes A2 and A1, which he produces and sells at KSh3000 and 4000, respectively.

Mbalanga says the number of portraits he is able to produce in a month depends on demand and market status based on the nature of the portraits. 

“The number of artwork I can produce per month is truly unpredictable. For instance, some months can go without getting even a single client, that’s why I say it is very unpredictable,” he said.

A portrait drawing by Mbalanga. PHOTO/Courtesy.

However, the amount of cash he earns from his artwork/portrait business has transformed his life. 

At times, he also engages in sand harvesting and brick-making to supplement his artwork business, owing to the exorbitant cost of living.

The business entails hawking his wares door-to-door as well as selling them during market days within Bunyala Sub-County.  


One of the key challenges Mbalanga has been grappling with and which has become a major bottleneck is the lack of capital to facilitate the purchase of raw materials for his artwork and portrait-making business. 

The other challenge he faces after producing his products is the lack of a stable market, physical office address, and proper marketing strategies.

Lack of money with which to buy or hire a motorbike has forced him to use a bicycle to transport his products to the market. 

Advice to the youth

While still in the university, he had been made to believe that life was like “bread and butter”. 

This was because his parents had been taking care of his welfare, but he soon came to realize it was the opposite after coming out of the university.

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“Patience and focus is vital in all we do. Always do your best in whatever activity you are engaging in for a living. God determines everyone’s destiny, so it is my hope I will secure an employment when time comes,” concludes Mbalanga.

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