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24-hour economy still a mirage three years on

By | February 18th 2012

By Joe Kiarie

The much-hyped initiative to transform Nairobi into a 24-hour city seems to have hit a snag, with barely any progress since the plan was mooted three years ago.

Ironically, even strategic zones in the central business district that were to serve as official pilot projects as proposed by the National Economic and Social Council have failed to live the dream.

If the initial plan was to be rolled out as envisaged, substantial human traffic, tight security, operational supermarkets, restaurants, and even banks working on round-the-clock basis is what would today characterise some city streets such as Koinange, Muindi Mbingu and Mokhtar Daddah all night throughout the week.

But this has failed to materialise, with the few entrepreneurs who had initially courted the idea of a 24-hour economy fast coming to terms with the harsh reality that Nairobi would rather be ‘a napping city’.

Biggest hindrance

An example is the highly rated Nakumatt Lifestyle retail outlet on Monrovia Street/Mokhtar Daddah streets. The supermarket briefly operated around the clock before the closing time was revised to 10pm.

The same happened to the City Market as well as several other major retail outlets in the vicinity, leaving filling stations and nightclubs as the only main functioning businesses by midnight.

The scenario is replicated along the ever-busy Tom Mboya Street and Moi Avenue, where bars and nightclubs are the dominant business after midnight.

Due to the high traffic flow on these two streets, some small-scale traders do business up to between 10pm and 11pm.

But the situation is worse in some busy commercial streets such as Luthuli, Ronald Ngala, Haile Sellasie as well on Accra Road and River Road.

Traders close their businesses as early as 5pm and some do not open until 9am the following day. Most of them cite insecurity and lack of a proper transport system as the main factors behind this.

Wilfred Kimani, an official at Nakumatt Holdings, says the plan to make the Lifestyle branch a 24-hour shopping mall was revised due to low customer flow.

"We revised the operating hours to between 7am and 10pm since there were very few customers deep in the night. But we have elevated the branch on Moi Avenue to 24-hour status since the customer flow is much higher," he says, noting that 95 per cent of nocturnal customers at the supermarkets chain are motorists.

Nairobi Central Business District Association (NCBDA) Chairman Timothy Muriuki regrets the plan to make Nairobi a 24-hour economy has failed to take off as expected.

Having been part of the 24-member National 24-Hour Economy Steering Committee that compiled a report on the initiative in June 2010, he says the plan was to have a better part of Nairobi operating round-the-clock by mid this year.

But Mr Muriuki cites numerous bottlenecks he believes have impeded the plan, the main one being the overall failure to integrate the concept of a 24-hour economy with other vital aspects of a city.

According to the chairman, City Council of Nairobi by-laws are perhaps the biggest hindrance to the initiative.

He equally singles out insecurity and a poor transport system among the key hiccups. "It is unfortunate that shops still close at 6pm. But that is the only option for traders in a city that is not only insecure but also lacks a proper transport system that would facilitate the smooth movement of people at night," Muriuki says, noting that the current set up of the city mainly favours nightclubs.

Safely commute

The chairman says rather than view the concept as an event; it is now evident that a 24-hour economy is a process that can only thrive if there is a conducive system.

"There is currently no circulation of people at night. We need factories and industries to operate round-the-clock and employ people to work in shifts. These are the people who will encourage other businesses," he says.

Muriuki asserts that to have a functional 24-hour system, a sound transport and security system will be vital.

"We will, for instance, need a metropolitan police unit to replace the city council askaris and simultaneously deal with city by-laws and security as is the case in developed cities.

This unit will need an integrated security monitoring system among other things to create an image that the city is secure," he states.

On transport, Muriuki says there is need to have a Government-owned and regulated urban public transport system that would enable people to safely commute to city suburbs around the clock.

"That is why we must change from the current scenario where the Government only licenses but does not own or properly regulate public transport, a sector that is now highly dominated by private operators," he says.

Muriuki opines that a county government will be the first major step in making a 24-hour economy in Nairobi a reality.

"This will give leaders a chance to freshly pass and implement laws that suit the city," he says.

The chairman admits that hawkers have only added to the insecurity in Nairobi, but reckons that with the right laws and approach, the street vendors can transform the city’s economy.

Lucrative business

"The proliferation of hawkers is not the evil. The evil is the disorganised manner in which they flock the city. But if they are for instance allocated specific streets to operate on from evening to midnight and offered security, this can form an ideal business environment as is the case in a city like Hong Kong," he alludes.

Stephen Waweru, the chairman of the central business district hawkers association, says hawkers have always been demonised as criminals but can prove they are genuine traders if accorded cooperation by the Government.

"Let there be an official system under which we are given time to operate from 5pm. We can easily attract consumers and create a lucrative business environment at night," he says.

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