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How ‘vibanda’ food is oiling city’s struggling economy

By Awal Mohammed | February 21st 2021

Chapati served with honey-glazed chicken with stir-fried vegetables and fried rice. [David Gichuru, Standard]

Hunger has no respect for class. It plagues the nomads in the dusty deserts of Takaba, it stalks children playing in urban schools.

It troubles sleek, suit-wearing executives tucked away in the crisp buildings of Nairobi’s central business district.

The latter’s appetite for affordable meals at noon has especially birthed shrewd entrepreneurs to fill a gaping void.

Some leave the comfort of their offices and walk to makeshift hotels to eat, while others get it delivered at their desks as they work away, but what is not in doubt is the swift penetration of ‘vibandas’ in high offices.

The allure of fresh food and affordability has made vibanda meals the most sought-after during lunch hours.

According to Nairobi County data, there are more than 1,500 licensed eating places in the city with more than 80 per cent of these being fast food joints.

The number is not about to reduce, pending applications lie unprocessed at the county licensing department.

And the future looks bright. With a bulging middle class that is supporting fringe industries, the hot meals on wheels are not going anywhere any time soon.

Industry insiders say as long as there is a demand for fresh and homemade food, there will always be someone to meet that need.

Mathee, as she refers to herself, is the owner of a makeshift kibanda in Nairobi’s Upper Hill. She says the hotel not only saves the pockets of middle-class workers in the big offices but also serves those who might feel lonely eating in costly offices.

Just like her name suggests, Mathee (mother in Sheng) feeds the masses that cannot afford to eat in high-end restaurants and five-star hotels.

She has been serving the working class in Upper Hill for more than six months and business looks promising.

“We have been here for more than six months now and the uptake is good. People who could not afford meals around are now happy,” she told Weekend Business.

Just like in ordinary hotels in the city, here one can grab a quick meal such as chapati and beans for around Sh100-150.

“You can also find ndengu and chapati. Those with deep pockets have also been considered and can get a piece of chicken among other foods,” Mathee said.

James Simiyu, on the other hand, operates his food business on delivery. He gets orders that he delivers every day to his clients in town from his house along Jogoo road.

“It is good on the stomach and good on your pocket,” said the father of two.

When the Covid-19 pandemic rocked the country, Simiyu was among the millions of workers that were made redundant in various sectors.

The diploma holder in food and hospitality management decided to venture into self-employment to steady the economic ship.

But the vibanda entrepreneurs have also felt the pain of huge taxes that has crippled many small and medium businesses.

“Business has just started to pick up, but we are using all the profits we have collected to pay relevant taxes to the government,” said Mathee.

Food vendors in Kibra slum. [Elvis Ogina, Standard]

Available data shows that SMEs constitute a majority of businesses in Kenya, providing 30 per cent of jobs and contributing one-third of GDP.

This underscores the pivotal role they play in both formal and informal sectors of the economy.

To cushion businesses and individuals against the effects of the pandemic, the government last year reduced value added tax rates from 16 to 14 per cent to make goods and services more affordable.

This, coupled with the 100 per cent tax relief for low-income earners, was geared to putting money in the pockets of consumers thus sustaining demand for goods and services.

However, the taxes reverted to their normal rates in January. National Treasury Cabinet Secretary Ukur Yatani said the decision was informed by the loss of revenue, with the government having to forego Sh65 billion in the period when Kenyans enjoyed the tax relief.

As the economy continues to take a beating, the vibanda food will continue to have a ready table in the high-end offices.

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