Neglect stalks downtown Nairobi’s booming informal trade

It is only 4am, but Nairobi’s Wakulima Market is a hive of activity.

Lorries and pickup trucks packed with produce from as far as Tanzania (onions), Uganda (lemons and bananas), Naivasha (cabbages and potatoes), and Kisii (bananas) take up every available space at the market commonly known as Marikiti.

The din of coughing engines and exhaust pipes sputtering dense smoke is taken a notch higher by the voices of traders haggling over prices.

This is to be expected as the market is the first port of call for the distributors of most of the produce consumed in the city and its environs.

Nelson Ochieng outside Marikiti market. [Anthony Kuria]

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From Monday to Saturday Ms Rose Wangari has to be up by 3am in order to be at Marikiti to buy fresh produce for her kiosk in Eastleigh.

“I have to wake up early, prepare breakfast for my family, and then leave for Marikiti. I need fresh produce like onions and tomatoes for my customers. If I’m late, I will find all the fresh supplies gone,” she explains.

Marikiti and Muthurwa markets are part of the larger downtown business areas of Nairobi that include River Road, Nyamakima, Gikomba, Kariokor, Kamukunji, Nyayo Market, Tsunami, and Kirinyaga Road.

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The activities of informal traders like Rose explain statistics that had for some time puzzled government agencies. Data showed that a third of all mobile loans are taken up between 3am and 5am. The logical conclusion seemed to point to Kenyans taking the short-term unsecured loans to finance leisure activities. However, the truth turned out to be quite different.

 “When we dug deeper into our statistics, we found that these loans are taken out by the mama mboga who wakes up at these odd hours to send money to a wholesaler at Marikiti or a handcart pusher [mkokoteni guy] who knows where to drop off her goods,” Dr Patrick Njoroge, the governor of the Central Bank of Kenya, explained in March 2017.

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Mobile loans have become an important source of finance for Kenya’s informal trade, which involves many stakeholders, including vendors of fresh produce, buyers, porters, and the hawkers who feed them.

To ward off the early morning cold, traders like Rose in Marikiti and the nearby Muthurwa Market dress warmly and order tea from food kiosks.

Rose needs the help of a handcart pusher to ferry her purchases to her kiosk. This is where Mr Nelson Ochieng comes in. Nicknamed Jaluo Safi, the 42-year-old father of three has worked at the market for the past 22 years. He is part of a team of 12 handcart pushers stationed at a shimo (territory) directly opposite the market’s main entrance on Haile Selassie Avenue.

We find Ochieng and several of his colleagues gathering assorted goods at the market. Customers pay Sh50 for their goods to be delivered to the roadside work station where they are loaded on handcarts ready for dispatch to various destinations, including Ngara, Eastleigh, Ushirika, Mathare North, Huruma, and Mradi. It is 6am and Ochieng has already made his first delivery to Eastleigh.

“I own one handcart and hire two others that I use on a daily basis. I work every day. One handcart carries up to fifteen 90-kilogramme sacks loaded with assorted goods. I am paid between Sh1,500 and Sh2,000 per trip. We make four trips each day. I pay my men Sh50 per trip,” he says as he loads his cart.

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Ochieng is so busy that it is almost impossible to have a conversation with him. Traders, clients, and his team of loaders regularly consult him. His phone keeps buzzing.

“I arrive at the market at 4am and leave for Eastleigh by 5am to deliver potatoes, vegetables, and onions. I have specific clients. Over the years my client list has grown.”

Besides offering delivery services, Ochieng also buys potatoes and onions in bulk and sells them at a profit. According to Ochieng, after he has deducted expenses, he makes about Sh10,000 a day.

Although markets such as Marikiti are characterised by incessant noise, insecurity, pollution, and overcrowding, there is no doubt that they contribute a large chunk of Nairobi City County’s gross domestic product (GDP) and the annual Sh3 trillion economy.

Data from the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics’ 2019 Economic Survey indicate that between 2013 to 2017, Nairobi produced the lion’s share of Kenya’s gross GDP at 21.7 per cent, followed by Nakuru, Kiambu, and Mombasa at 6.1, 5.5, and 4.7 per cent respectively.

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However, no statistics are available to determine how much these areas actually contribute to the county’s GDP. This can be attributed to the informal nature of most of the businesses.

Unlike formal businesses which issue invoices and receipts, which means that due to value added tax, the government has a record of what was transacted and where, in places like Marikiti, Muthurwa, Grogan, and Kirinyaga Road, which form an important part of Nairobi’s informal economy, many transactions are conducted through cash and M-Pesa. The enterprises barely keep records, making it difficult to measure consumption.

Grogan and Kirinyaga Road are best known for good deals on spare parts and vehicle repairs.

“I once took my car to one of the many garages at Grogan for recarpeting. They did a very good job. I paid Sh15,000 for the service but did not get a receipt. I doubt there is any form of record kept,” says Dr Paul Gachanja, an economics lecturer at Kenyatta University.

These areas support thousands of livelihoods and families. Ms Teresia Mwangi, affiliated with the over 5,000-member National Federation of Jua Kali Artisans, estimates that over 10,000 people earn a living in the Grogan area.

 “From food vending, to hawking, to vehicle repairs and spray painting, there are numerous income-generating activities that take place here.”

Banks have noticed the potential of these downtown areas and set up branches. From the Kenya Commercial Bank branch on River Road to Barclays Bank in Nyamakima area, Jamii Bora on Kirinyaga Road, Cooperative and Equity banks in the Marikiti area, and numerous outlets that offer mobile money transfer services, financial institutions have not been left out in the boon.

“The fact that there are banks in these parts of the city shows there is a lot of economic potential,” says Dr. Gachanja.   

But why are these areas so popular?

“If someone with a limited budget wants, say, a vehicle spare part, shoes, or clothes, they can buy them from the lower part of Nairobi at a reasonably lower price than uptown,” he explains.

“This part of Nairobi supplies the city with generic and therefore cheaper products that buyers would otherwise get from the CBD at steep prices.”

According to Mr Simon Kamangu, a businessman, millions of shillings exchange hands here on a daily basis.

“Grogan extends from Globe roundabout to Riverside. Across the Nairobi River, we have the Ngara Open Air Market, or Tsunami as people like to call it, and the Nyayo Market. The number of traders who are involved in different businesses is in the thousands, so you can imagine the amount of money made in a day.”

Trash at the New Ngara Open Air Market [James Okong'o]
Although Wakulima market was constructed in 1966 to accommodate at least 300 traders, the number has increased tremendously to over 2,000. This has pushed some traders to display their wares right next to the road.

“Drivers have to be wary of the many traders conducting business along the road. There are also the many pedestrians crossing Haile Selassie Avenue to Marikiti, Muthurwa, and the CBD. It’s usually chaotic, especially during the rush hour,” said Mr John Kiplimo, a motorist and resident of Nairobi’s South B area.

Despite the apparent congestion and chaos, traders have vowed to resist any efforts to move the market and, according to the authorities, improve its condition.

The Kenya Urban Roads Authority (KURA) has announced plans to demolish Marikiti and replace it with an ultra-modern overpass connecting Enterprise Road to the city centre.

“This will help decongest the CBD. It’s going to overpass the railway station and will connect to Enterprise Road and also assist Jogoo Road in a way. Nairobi will never be the same again,” explained KURA Assistant Director for Corporate Affairs John Cheboi.  

The new Wakulima Market is being built on a 45-acre piece of land on Kangundo Road. The Sh800 million new market is being built by KURA through funding from the Japan International Cooperation Agency. Traders have been given until December 2019 to move.

However, they are not happy. Mr Eddy Koko has worked at Marikiti for over 20 years. The owner of more than 20 handcarts and chairman of the Marikiti Market Traders Welfare has expressed opposition to the government’s relocation plan.

“We are unhappy with the notice. Wakulima Market is strategically located and that’s why businesses thrive here,” Koko laments.

Other traders say plans to move the market will be met with ‘strong’ resistance.

On the other side of town, Mr David Mwangi, a food kiosk owner who has been at the location for 13 years and is the chairperson of the New Ngara Open Air Market Traders Association, says the market used to be expansive and vibrant but more than 1,000 traders were moved out when a private developer set up a garage and car wash on the five-acre piece of land.

David Mwangi in white dust coat with other traders at the New Ngara Open Air Market. [James Okong'o]
“The developer has attempted on more than one occasion to throw the remaining traders out. It’s Nairobi Governor Mike Sonko who has consistently fought for us.”

Nearby is the Tsunami market, known for the khat (muguka) business.

Moha has sold muguka at the market for over a decade. “I make a profit of over Sh5,000 daily from selling the stimulant to small traders.”

A common thread runs through the complaints of the traders at all these city markets: neglect by the county government. The traders say that although they pay taxes, they hardly receive any services and their security is not assured.

Just like Marikiti and other areas in downtown Nairobi, the markets are filthy. The decrepit structures are made of old corrugated iron sheets. On one end of the market is a stinking dumpsite.

“Traders continue to dump at the site even though the garbage has not been collected for almost five years. This is because there’s no access road for the garbage trucks,” says Mwangi.

Uncollected garbage at the New Ngara Market. [James Okong'o]
Neglect and congestion as traders and customers jostle with handcarts, motorcycles, and cars for limited space are a serious threat to Nairobi’s booming downtown economy.

Insecurity is also another major issue in these places. For instance, in the Grogan and Kirinyaga areas, all manner of businesses are forced to close after sunset.  

 “I can’t carry on with my business after certain hours due to insecurity. It’s not that I’m afraid, but I fear for my customers who would not dare come here after night falls. This means I have to make my way to the areas in the vicinity of Tea Room and sell my wares to travelers after night falls,” says a jacket and coat vendor.

Grogan has also in the past been characterized by violence due to land disputes. For instance, in June 2013 after a land sale agreement between the Hebatullahs and Jamia Masjidahl (registered trustees of the Jamia Mosque Committee), running battles between Jua Kali artisans and police ensued after the former claimed ownership of the sold property. The buyers eventually took over the land. At the moment, a car wash and a parking lot occupy the space.      

Although fraught with challenges, the downtown areas are a gold mine. But how come the taxman does not benefit?

“How many people pay taxes in these areas? It is an informal sector, meaning it is disorganized and hence not regulated,” explains Dr. Gachanja.

Politics have also been playing a big role since there are people who politically survive because of the electorate in such areas.

Repeated calls –for comments– to Hon. Mike Mbuvi Sonko, Starehe MP Hon. Charles Kanyi Njagua and Nairobi County Trade Executive Allan Igambi went unanswered.

This story was supported by a grant from the Aga Khan University Graduate School of Media and Communications through the Kenya Impact Reporting Fellowships project.

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