Lunchtime is tough for many city-dwellers, mostly those who work around the city centre.
Those who cannot afford to eat from middle-class city restaurants or five-star hotels often prefer to skip lunch and go window shopping or while away the time at Jee-van-Jee Gardens.
Before Uhuru Park was closed for renovations, many people used to spend time following lunch hour sermons to nourish their souls as another form of lunch break. But of late, this is changing thanks to the mushrooming of pocket-friendly eateries commonly known as kibanda.
Unlike traditional hotels that serve customers throughout the day, vibanda are makeshift structures where traders prepare food mostly during lunch hours.
Before, these eateries were common around construction sites targeting workers during lunch hours. The eateries are now in the city centre; this is the case at City Market along Muindi Mbingu Street. In a short time, some traders are making a killing from people working around the area and surrounding streets.
Here, all kinds of employees converge during lunch hour - from bankers to lawyers and students from nearby institutions.
Initially, the ground was occupied by traders selling second-hand clothes but they are now being edged out by eateries.
“We realised there was a lunchtime crisis in Nairobi and many people skipped lunch yet we understand that working on an empty stomach is not healthy,” said Lucy Kamanja, who runs one of the joints.
The workspace is large enough to serve and store food and has provision for a gas cylinder which is used to warm food for clients.
Delicacies served at the joint include sweet potatoes, fried eggs chapati, pilau, tea, fresh pancakes; all of which retail between Sh20 and Sh100.
“Customers flock to this joint because of our pocket-friendly prices and our customer care. With time, we have won the hearts of loyal clients,” she added.
Around the city market area alone, there are about 20 vibandas which attract customers on weekdays.
Here, fast-moving food includes ugali, beef stew, rice, chapati and tea retailing between Sh30 to Sh150.
Customers sit on plastic chairs or water jerycans as they enjoy their meals in the open or in structures covered with polyethene or canvas - no one wastes time after eating.
“I have been taking lunch here for six months now because of prices and fresh food. Previously, my colleagues and I used to go all the way to the bus station or Globe roundabout,” Isaac Ndegwa, a mobile phone dealer along Kenyatta Avenue shared.
“I used to spend Sh200 on lunch but when I check into the kibanda with Sh100 that is enough to cater for lunch and even cheaper. In fact, I stopped carrying food from home,” he added.
Loice Kibe, a beautician along Moi Avenue, says she walks all the way to a joint along Kenyatta Avenue which she describes as a modern kibanda.
“There, they serve fresh food at a cheaper price. I can get pilau at Sh100 and their menu is rich. For me, I have no issue eating there because it helps me save a lot,” Kibe shared.
Notably, these pocket-friendly joints spread in other parts of the city centre including Ronald Ngala, the open space along Uhuru Highway, bus station, Railways, behind Panari Hotel and at GM on Mombasa Road and Upper Hill areas.
Many more can be found in industrial areas, along Jogoo Road, and deep in the heart of Nairobi estates.
Sometimes, it is hard to get sitting space in the joints during lunch hours portraying these are not only saviours for the city centre workforce but also money minting ventures for owners.
Assuming that 100 people get space in one joint between 11 am and 3 pm eating food going for Sh100 on average, the owner will pocket a cool Sh10,000.
In a good month, such a trader will pocket about Sh200,000, which are good proceeds after all the expenses including paying workers and daily stock.
Tough economic times
Economists argue that the rise of the kibanda economy could save middle-class income earners to survive during tough economic times since the food served is pocket-friendly.
Marshel Nyangor, who is an economist, says people who used to eat regular food in fast food joints have resorted to vibanda as a way of saving a little during tough economic times.
“People could be shifting to those hotels so as to manage to survive in relation to the current cost of living. At the moment, there are new deductions in the payslips,” Nyangor explained.
He added: “If someone was earning about Sh100,000, the new deductions under the Finance Act 2023 means what such a person’s earnings will reduce thus they must find a way to live within the means.” Even so, experts do not believe that the rise of vibandas will give high-end hotels a run for their money in the short term.
“Big hotels might be forced to reduce the cost of their food and some of them could close but in the long run,” the economist explained.