Nairobi is a ghost town at 2.30am. Except for a distant howl of a hound or a croaky snore from a sleeping quarter, the country’s capital city is as silent as a graveyard at these wee hours.
Because these are out-of-business hours, the almost Sh3 trillion city economy is fast asleep.
The scene is the same when you drive through the Central Business District (CBD) — the commercial hub of this country with its well-lit streets, well-paved roads and monumental buildings with workstations for those who run the economy. There is not a soul, not even a sentry’s silhouette.
Once in a while on a side-walk, we spot scantily dressed women braving the morning chill as they carry on with humanity’s oldest profession.
At exactly 3am, our car glides into the outskirts of the CBD; the chaotic and filthier part of the city centre. And, voila, there is a burst of life. We have literally walked into a totally different time zone.
There are lots of movements — of people, cars and hand carts. Shops are open, hawkers are busy. We are at the Wakulima Market — Kenya’s largest wholesale fresh produce market. Popularly known as Marikiti, this is the first place most of the fresh produce you consume lands first. It has travelled overnight having left different farms across the country.
Marikiti, which is joined at the hip with Muthurwa Market, is a bee-hive of commercial activities. There are trucks full of assorted farm produces — lemons from Uganda, bananas from Kisii County and cabbages from Naivasha.
These nightshift traders and workers labour through rain or no rain and, on a dawn when the temperatures dip to unkind levels.
Irrespective of the odd hours, these trucks have already taken up almost all the available space outside of Wakulima House, making it difficult for us to find parking space.
More space is taken up by hand carts or mkokoteni. Also milling around the trucks like a cackle of hyenas around a prey are porters described here as human carriers. One of them, Wilson Ritiria, tells us that often times they don’t sleep.
And the few times that they do sleep they convert a pavement into their bedroom.
They sleep with one eye open, looking out for the arrival of the trucks carrying supplies. It is evident that a pint of alcohol works miracles for these nocturnal men.
Marikiti is an important thermostat for the prices you pay for most of the vegetables and fruits that you get from your mama mboga. Everyone of these — from the wholesale trader who left his farm in Kirinyaga at 2am, to the drunk porter who gobbles up pints of aclohol to stay awake, to the mama mbogas who will start arriving here at 4am, have trooped here this early in search of one thing: a decent profit margin.
The vast majority of vulnerable workers in the informal economy are women, who also form a big chunk of the night-shift workers. More and more people have been losing their jobs since 2008 as a result of the financial and economic slowdown. Many of them have to look for work in the informal economy, in which earnings are generally low, accident rates high and social security seldom offered.
The price you pay for a dozen tomatoes from mama mboga, for example, will pay all those in this chain of nocturnal business. Your price will include the wages to the farmers and all those who helped load the produce to the truck; transport from, for example, Loitoktok (and in times of scarcity, Uganda) to Muthurwa; trading fee to County Government, and payment to the porters who offload them from the trucks.
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A hand cart puller will be paid to transport them to where they will be sold to your mama mboga — it might be within Marikiti Market, which officially opens for trading at around 5am, or to other parts of the city. All these costs will be passed on to your mama mboga, and ultimately to you. In addition to these costs, your price will also include transport to and from the market, County Government fees for her business, electricity to her kibanda, and the water she uses to wash the grocery.
But critical of all costs will be her margin — or what she will be left with to pay her rent and other bills in her home, feed her family, school her children and, desirably, clothe them.
The margin price for your dozen of tomatoes works out to about Sh36. But in order for her to get an even better margin, she has to arrive at the market even earlier. Here, more than anywhere else, the early bird catches the worm.
And she has to come with ready cash. If, for some reason, she does not have ready cash, she will have to borrow.
According to the Central Bank of Kenya Governor Dr Patrick Njoroge, she will most likely borrow the money from her mobile phone. And this will most likely be between 3am and 5am when, according to the Governor, a third of all mobile loans are taken up. By evening, she will have repaid this credit.
“When we dig deeper into our statistics, we found that these loans are taken by the mama mboga who wakes up at this odd hours and takes Sh5,000 loan... sends the money to a wholesaler at Marikiti...sends some to a mkokoteni guy who knows where to drop off the goods,” explained Njoroge.
There are three banks in Kenya that have taken advantage of the high penetration of mobile money transfer services to offer loans through mobile phones to people like the mama mbogas — Kenya Commercial Bank (KCB), which has partnered with Safaricom to launch KCB-M-Pesa; Commercial Bank of Africa’s (CBA’s) M-Shwari in partnership with Safaricom; and Equity Bank through its Mobile Virtual Network Operator (MVNO) Equitel. Loans running into billions of shillings are disbursed day-to-day through these three platforms.
In the year ending December 2016, nine out of ten loans given by KCB were through the mobile phone. A total of 5.3 million loans worth Sh9.9 billion were disbursed through KCB M-Pesa.
For Equity Bank, the number of loans disbursed through mobile phones reached 5.4 million in this financial year. These added up to a whoping Sh38.5 billion loan disbursed through Equitel.
By the time of going to press, CBA had not released their financial results. However, as of December 2015, a total of Sh64 billion loans had been disbursed through M-Shwari since its inception.
At around 3.45am, matatus (mini-buses) roar to life. They stop at Wakulima, dropping off women with wide baskets on their backs. Some of these women head straight to the only M-Pesa agent operating at these crazy hours. The M-Pesa operator says he never goes to sleep. The number of people crowding at his shop is a testimony to the lucrativeness of the business at this non-traditional working hours.
Most of the transactions here are done in cash. But traders have come to prefer mobile money transfer services such as M-Pesa for their safety, according to George Mburu, a tomato farmer and wholesale trader. We did not spot any police officer. So, it is not clear how secutiy issues are handled here.
One of those who arrived at 4am with a kiondo on her back was Julie Mutuku. She has a grocery store in Nairobi’s Eastleigh area, which is 20 minutes drive from the CBD.
She looks relaxed by the time we meet her. She has already done all her shopping, and now she is just killing time.
She says she borrows up to a maximum of Sh5,000 from M-Shwari (she has not subscribed to the other services).
On the other hand, Mama Gitau who arrived 45 minutes later was not so lucky. We met her at around 5am, cursing under her breath as she rummaged through a mound of carrots at Muthurwa.
Mama Gitau has a hotel in Gikomba Market, and by 8am, her customers start trooping in, hungry after an overnight work at East Africa’s biggest open-air market for second-hand clothes. “It is my son’s school bus that did not come on time. It normally arrives at 4am, and while he goes to school I go to the market. So I had to take him to school myself,” says Mama Gitau as she scraps for carrots. The best carrots have gone with the early risers.
These nightshift traders of fresh produce will start leaving Muthurwa grounds the same time the moon will start fading from the sky at around 7am, paving way for dealers in electronics, clothes, shoes and stationery. Most of them will have moved on to the sheds at Marikiti and will carry on with the trade until 1am.
For people like Mutuku and Mama Gitau, all their overnight efforts will amount to something if they get their profit margin.
That is why they choose to be awake early to beat Nairobi’s early traffic.
They don’t know, and probably don’t care, that they are among the people who ensure that food leaving the farms reach the forks.
They do this using hand carts, popularly known as mkokoteni, a non mechanised wheel whose usefulness ended more than a century ago.
“The maximum I can borrow is Sh5,000 from my mobile application, but the capital I need to run my business is about Sh50,000,” explained Mutuku.
And when things get tough here, as it is currently, it gets tougher for the most vulnerable in our economy — the poor. Under the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics’ basket of goods, food and non-alcoholic beverages takes up over a third of poor families’ expenditure.
For poor households earning a minimum income of Sh12,000, over Sh4,000 goes into buying such things as potatoes, sukumawiki, cabbages and tomatoes. The price of these items has dramatically shot up, going by the latest figures from the national statistician. A kilogramme of cabbages, for example, has increased by 56 per cent from Sh48 in February, 2016 to Sh75 in February, 2017.
Perhaps, that is why, as President Uhuru Kenyatta put it in his State of the Nation address, most wananchi cannot relate to the colourful economic indicators of GDP growing at an average of 5.5 per cent.
“Wananchi want to know what these economic indicators mean to their lives. They cannot relate to how GDP impacts on the price of unga. Many of our citizens are wondering why their children are still struggling to find jobs. These concerns are legitimate and they are questions that every citizen is entitled to have answers from their government,” said Uhuru.