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Changing face of Biashara Street as Chinese edge out Indian traders

By Lee Mwiti | Published Sun, February 11th 2018 at 13:01, Updated February 11th 2018 at 13:11 GMT +3
Biashara Street in Nairobi, where billionaires such as Manu Chandaria started from. [Willis Awandu, Standard]

Kenyans of South Asia origin, popularly called Indians, will perhaps get the longest chapter when the history of the development of trade is East Africa is finally written.

Already there are trivial publications about that on the shelves of university libraries and still, Indians occupy a big chunk of the write-ups.

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This is because of the powerful dominance they have had on commerce especially in Kenya ever since their forefathers trooped in droves on the East African coast from India to work on the railway at the beginning of the 20th Century.

And one hallmark of this dominance that stands out glaringly in Nairobi is a street dissecting Mokhtar Dadah Avenue called Biashara Street.

Since the colonial days, Biashara Street has come to epitomise the unmatched Indian business acumen which has given them a sparkling bourgeoisie standing within Kenya’s economic classes.

To begin with, Biashara Street housed one of Nairobi’s first general stores which was Indian-owned at the turn of the century as the nation’s capital city begun to take shape.

And within it, were lined Indian “dukas,” or shops.

One of the well-known Indian business people who exercised influence in colonial Kenya and who were responsible for how Biashara Street later turned out; populated by Indian merchants, is the well-known colonial entrepreneur Alibhai Mulla Jeevanjee after whom Jeevanjee Gardens is named.

According to his granddaughter Zarina Patel, Jeevanjee helped the British in constructing their residences, including the governor’s mansion.

The British rewarded him with the land between the present day University Way and Biashara Street. On it he built the new Indian Bazaar. And his fellow Indians joined his venture taking up BiasharaStreet and running businesses en masse.

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It would also be interesting to note that one of Kenya’s wealthiest clans and leading oligarchs, the Chandarias, started out as simple shopkeepers at Biashara Street.

According to current Chandaria family patriarch Manu Chandaria, his father, a semi-illiterate Indian merchant from Gujarat, opened a shop on Biashara Street, joining a number of other Indian ‘Dukawallas’ who had established stores there after completing building the railway.

From Biashara Street, the Chandarias grew to be a major force in Kenyan commerce and philanthropy.

Manu Chandaria runs Comcraft Industries, a conglomerate that has interests in the manufacture of steel and aluminium products and with subsidiaries in Tanzania, Uganda and Ethiopia.

Manu’s nephew Manesh Chandaria owns and runs the even bigger Chandaria Industries which dominates the manufacture and sale of hygiene products across the region. That is besides owning mid-tier lender Guardian Bank.

But like all history is a study of change, Biashara Street has slowly metamorphosed and today, the glaring Indian dominance of yesteryears is gone.

Indian lawyer Sharad Rao notes clearly in his book, Indian Dukawallas: Their Contribution to Political and Economic Development of Kenya (Free Press Publishers, 2016) the importance of BiasharaStreet and the many Indians who catalputed from its alleys to build great Kenyan industries.

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The Chinese have come, not in dhows like the Indians, but with great economic promises to take over even little hubs of commerce like Biashara Street.

A simple spot check by Weekend Business shows Chinese shops lining the street doing bustling business from selling baby wear to Asian-made window curtains and house mats.

All over the place

A giant Chinese-owned retailer called Dong Fang Home stands ubiquitous, running five outlets on both sides of the street. Besides it are Chinese retailer’s Cosy family, Sure Fit, Golden Dragon…all huge, noticeable outlets that blur the few remaining small Indian shops.

Samuel Owino, a guard who has worked for different retail shops along Biashara Street for more than 10 years, is

“I have worked here both for Indians and Chinese guarding their shops. I started working for an Indian hotel owner in 2004. And I can tell you the change is real. These Chinese shops never used to be here. They have come in the last like five years. Now we have more Chinese people doing business,” Mr Owino said.

One of a handful of small Kenyan retailers trading on the street, Susan Wambui, who owns an M-Pesa shop which still acts as a store for selling shoes, also points out at the way Biashara Street has changed.

“Before this M-pesa shop, I had a small boutique right here seven years ago. This place was full of Indians. Then suddenly the Chinese showed up. They are all over the place now but we relate well with them” Ms Wambui says.

XN Iraki, an economist and lecturer at the University of Nairobi Business School explains the changing face of Biashara Street: “The Biashara Street is nostalgic to Indians. But I suspect they are scaling up. Taking bigger businesses in Kenya and elsewhere including abroad. They are leaving indigenous people downstream. The Chinese are coming in because they can undercut the Indians and locals through sourcing products cheaply from China. They are controlling the supply chain, just as Indians used to.”

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Dr Iraki also avers that the Chinese are communists politically, economically but now, they have become first class capitalists. They are making inroads into the retail sector in Africa silently.

“They saw the potential in Biashara Street, observing the Indians there. They are likely to go even beyond Biashara Street, as long they can control the supply chain,” Dr Iraki says.

That the Chinese and their new-learned capitalism seem to be out-muscling the Indians from participation in the Kenyan economy looks a clearer fact that it was before.

Biashara Street brings nostalgia to Indians and their glory days controlling commerce in East Africa since pre-independence.

But the juggernaut of Chinese capitalism in Africa and Kenya in particular is blind to that nostalgia and is brutally taking over.