By Kiundu Waweru
It is Nairobi’s most down-market trading space, famed for second-hand clothes and shunned by many for its muddy trenches, but many of Nairobi’s Gikomba market operators are millionaires raking in cash despite the muck.
Gikomba, whose mention is synonymous with second-hand clothes (mitumba), was one of the key beneficiaries in this year’s Budget when Finance Minister Uhuru Kenyatta announced tax reduction on imported used clothes.
Jennifer Auma Odiara who has worked at Gikomba since 1994 Boniface Kavoi, chairman, Quarry road open-air market. Photos: Kiundu Waweru/Standard
Soon after Uhuru’s favour, an extensive tour of the market and interviews with traders there revealed an under-rated lot of rich business people, many who handle thousands of shillings per day and seem to revel in the lowly status society allocates them.
Jennifer Auma Odiara who has worked at Gikomba since 1994
Boniface Kavoi, chairman, Quarry road open-air market.
Photos: Kiundu Waweru/Standard
Gikomba, sprawling over an uneven 20-hectare location looks the most unattractive periphery of the CBD’s southern side. It is identifiable by the hundreds of polythene covered stalls and open stands which become marooned in sloshy mud when it rains.
Apart from mitumba, the market teems in myriad other businesses, from dry foods, vegetables, shoes, furniture and hardware shops, cafetarias and food vendors.
The first indication that there is big business in Gikomba is the presence of main bank branches on the main New Pumwani Road.
The crËme de la crËme of Gikomba traders are the wholesalers who import mitumba in bulk.
"They start their business at 6am, selling the bales to retailers. By mid-day they are done and leave the market. Some come here in taxis or matatus but they own Mercedes Benzes and live in Runda, Muthaiga and such places," says Boniface Kavoi, the chairman of the Quarry Road open-air section.
Kavoi says the people who import the clothing and shoes are have become super rich from the business.
"One person can make about Sh500,000 a day," he pauses and adds that one of big importers was robbed Sh800,000 by gangsters who raided the market on last Madaraka Day (June 1).
One high rise building at Gikomba that houses a leading bank is owned by a mitumba importer.
"They have invested heavily in real estate. One of them has a three-star hotel along Nairobi-Nakuru highway," says another trader who does not wish to be identified.
A staffer at the Nairobi City Council, who asked for anonymity, says the council collects about Sh7 million per month from the market, making it the richest of all Nairobi markets.
According to the area Councillor Kenneth Irungu, the council’s target is Sh280,000 per week from market cess.
"There is also daily revenue collected from goods like potatoes, which amounts to about Sh200,000 which is not included in the monthly tally," says Irungu.
Mr Irungu estimates all the traders who work Gikomba could be 50,000 but the number could be more, according to sectional chairpersons.
One of the importers said to be among the market’s tycoons said they do not earn as much as the retailers estimate.
"Taxation has been very high, there is also a lot of competition from source countries who sell to the highest bidder. Nearly all sub-Saharan countries now import mitumba," said the lady importer who owns two city restaurants. She declines to disclose her daily takings.
On June 1, gangsters invaded the market and robbed a large group of bale importers who had just finished selling their wares. One was to have lost Sh800,000 from the day’s sales.
Like the retailers, the bulk importers say they hope for a slight price reduction following Uhuru’s reprieve.
But the retailers say they are dogged by many other problems as their businesses have continued to go down while the prices of bales went up. They now hope the Uhuru reprieve will help them make ends meet.
"A bale of clothes goes for 12,000, and the wholesalers have not reduced the price even with tax deductions in the budget," moans Ann Mwendi who has traded here since 1996.
Jennifer Auma, a children’s’ clothes dealer for 15 years adds that the Nairobi City Council is also milking them dry. "They charge us Sh100 on Mondays and Sh50 shillings on Thursdays. yet they don’t give us services. In fact, if they find that one has not swept around their stall, they fine you Sh500."
And Juma Dok, the chairman of Quarry Road shoes section, concurs that the council takes a lot of money in cess without ploughing it back.
"The market is in a disarray, no drainage, rundown toilets, no clean water, poor garbage collection and we have also been demanding a modern market in vain," Dok says.
And it does not stop there. The traders say police officers on patrol in the market find every reason to solicit for money.
"The police officers on patrol harass stall owners asking for money. They are many who have Gikomba like a toll station, some from Shauri Moyo police station and Administration Police attached to the District Officer, Pumwani, " says Michael Muchiri.