Like hawkers, we should all have ears on the ground

Hawkers selling wares along the highway. [XN Iraki, Standard]

If you live along Mombasa Road, you must have noted hawkers selling neckties around  Nyayo Stadium roundabout. By the way, Kenyans are unique - they are the only nationality that lives on roads.

Unaishi wapi? Thika Road! Mombasa Road, Kiambu Road...

On Thika Road, hawkers‘ hottest item is small towels and njugu (ground nuts) near Kahawa Sukari underpass.

Do Mombasa Road residents love smartness more than Thika Road residents? Do Thika Road residents sweat too much?

What’s hawked on your street or road? Is it true Mombasa Road residents are employees and need ties while Thika Road residents are businessmen and need no ties?

When I asked one hawker why the ties, his answer was “kuna baridi.” It’s amazing how hawkers are down to earth and in tune with the market and the weather. The caps were doing very well before the rains. 

Hawkers are on the road as early as 6.00am. And they know where to locate, near roundabout where traffic jams are common. You find them around Nyayo Stadium roundabout and Pangani “choke point” where Kiambu and Thika Roads merge and then split into Muranga and Wangari Maathai roads. 

I am told this split is symbolic of the hustlers taking Murang‘a Road in matatus and buses. Wangari Maathai Raod is taken by the affluent. Some truth…

How do hawkers stay tuned to the market? Experience is one possible reason, over the years they have mastered the seasons and what’s demanded.

They have no factories to redesign, they simply go to their store and pull out what’s on demand. Where is their store or warehouse?  Their supply chain is short, efficient and flexible. Their success depends on this nearness to the ground. Some animals can detect prey by putting their head on the ground to detect vibrations. 

Hawker’s closest allies are politicians. They are in tune with the ground with point men everywhere. I recently found out that their lateness to meetings is deliberate, they want an ear to the ground first.

That’s why some “unsophisticated” politicians are so successful. Ever wondered why many politicians love dancing and attending funerals?  These are occasions to put the ear to the ground. Their political decisions are based on reality and real-time data. 

New developments such as supermarkets, malls, expressways, SGR and e-commerce came and found hawkers doing their work. They have defied Schumpeter’s creative destruction. Economic reality keeps them on the streets. One Nairobian told me, he would rather face the inconvenience of hawkers than crime if these young men and women were idle. Do you agree with him? 

The hawkers’ work might be taxing, but their resilience is admirable. Their flexibility and nearness to the ground are their source of competitiveness. Can other sectors learn from them? Yet our business schools would prefer studying listed firms, not hawkers and their resilience. Are you a hawker? Talk to us.