It is a chilly Friday morning. Workers on the Nairobi Expressway are putting final touches on the Sh64 billion toll road.
A hawker approaches. He had anxiously waited for traffic to build up to cross from the other side of the road to approach his potential customers. But they look disinterested in the tea and buns he is offering.
He walks on. He is now directly opposite Ole Sereni Hotel, which primes itself as one of the epitomes of luxury and comfort in Nairobi.
Another traffic snarl-up offers the hawker a brief window of opportunity to cross the busy road.
Unknown to him, 300 metres away, a pedestrian has just been knocked down by a speeding vehicle. A crowd has gathered around, but the scene cannot support a sale.
He walks on, bypassing other hawkers. Like other small traders, they are simply known as street vendors, but their marketplace is no longer just on the streets; it extends to roads, including highways.
Along the roads are also numerous small businesses — shops, eateries, garages, mobile money agency outlets, petrol stations, chemists and many others. They, too, are conveniently targeting road users.
But as the Nairobi Expressway takes shape, these businesses, as well as hawkers, are experiencing disruption.
Their businesses may be best suited to alleyways, but they now must find a way to cope with the highways.
The expressway’s design has shaken and destroyed the very foundation of their business; traffic snarl-ups and public service vehicles picking and dropping off passengers just anywhere.
Either side of the highway are separated by a fence meant to prevent pedestrians from crossing at undesignated sections.
The Mwai Kibaki administration and that of his successor, Uhuru Kenyatta, have pumped billions of shillings into roads infrastructure.
But the smooth modern roads have come at a heavy price for small businesses.
This speaks more to policy imbalance in the economy, according to Ken Gichinga, the chief economist at Mentoria Economics, who likens this contrast to a train leaving the station but without passengers.
“Much of the policy direction in the last few years has been on grand infrastructure, but businesses have been left behind,” says Gichinga.
“Fiscal policy has run ahead of monetary policy, so we have ended up with this strange dynamic of many informal business establishments trying to eke out a living along grand infrastructure projects.”
Along Mombasa Road, as is the case with many other major roads, are small shops and eateries. Their potential customers are road users, office and factory workers in search of an affordable meal.
Even with the highways, Kenyans still want to have their way - board and alight from public transport anywhere along the roads. It is the allure of convenience.
It is their way, not the way highways are designed. And Kenya National Highways Authority (KeNHA) has to confront this. Its tagline “quality highways, better connections” is yet to resonate with many ordinary Kenyans.
KeNHA, whose primary role is to develop, manage, rehabilitate and maintain classes A, B and C roads, has had to stretch its mandate into building markets.
“We ensure that as we develop roads, we also develop designated market areas for traders. The reality is that we need them as well,” says Samwel Kumba, the deputy director for corporate communication at KeNHA. “The challenge is that as we take one group of traders off the road to the markets we develop, another group emerges and poses the same problem we are trying to solve.”
Key roads such as Mombasa Road, Thika Road, Waiyaki Way and their arteries are, therefore, forced to live with traffic snarl-ups and the menace of “unwanted” traders.
It looks like the accepted way of life for as long as the passengers are happy with the convenience of boarding or alighting at their preferred points and traffic builds up for the traders to sell.
For traffic police officers and National Transport and Safety Authority (NTSA), enforcing the has been a tall order.
Along Outering Road from the Donholm intersection to the Eastern Bypass, the completion of the upgrade came with its own fair share of challenges for traders.
“It is like the upgraded road cut our customers by half. Those locked on the other side of the road had to find another joint,” said Peter Njoroge, proprietor of a wines and spirits shop in Pipeline, Embakasi.
The busy Nairobi-Nakuru highway, is no different. Traders at Soko Mjinga Market are not about to give up chasing down motorists with buckets full of carrots, potatoes and other fresh produce on the foggy Kinare section.
The market was associated with low prices that the traders used to charge for their produce sourced from nearby farms. Now they are wiser but the name of the market remains.
“We had to develop a market for them so that we drive them away from the road and also develop a service lane for motorists to access the market,” explains Kumba.
But a majority of the traders only use the market to store their goods. Trading happens on the shoulders of the road.
Travellers like the convenience and traders love the quick sales.
Such hazards notwithstanding, the importance of small traders to the economy cannot be gainsaid.
A 2016 Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) baseline survey on micro, small and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs) provides some clues. By 2016, there were 5.85 million micro-businesses — those employing between one and nine people.
KNBS found that 40.6 per cent of unlicensed MSMEs in the country were located in open places or where there were no structures, while 44.1 per cent operated in either temporary or semi-permanent structures.
Data shows some were operating in open grounds with stands (9.1 per cent), 14.1 per cent were always on the move, while nearly a fifth operated in residential areas but without any special outfit.
The majority of these MSMEs were in the service sector, with most operating in wholesale and retail trade, repair of motor vehicles and motorcycles followed by accommodation and food service activities.
In five years to 2016, some 2.2 million MSMEs had closed shop. With colleges churning out more graduates than the job market can absorb, informal businesses, many operating along the major roads due to high rents elsewhere, have been the shelter for many youths.
According to KeNHA’s Strategic plan for between June 2020 and June 2023, the agency plans to have spent Sh464 billion on roads.
These include the Nairobi-Nakuru-Mau Summit and Mlolongo-Jomo Kenyatta International Airport-Likoni Road-James Gichuru Road projects, which are being undertaken through public-private partnerships.
The length of roads classified as superhighways in Kenya reached 157 kilometres in 2020 from 80.9 kilometres in 2016.
In total, the country had 22,648.68 kilometres of paved roads by the end of 2020 compared with 13,033.6 kilometres in 2016.
But for all the good things that the improved road network has brought —including opening up new areas, improving access to markets by farmers and cutting traffic snarl-ups — small businesses feel left out.
According to Mentoria’s Gichinga, while the development of road infrastructure is often said to spur businesses, it will not be a natural process for the bottom of the pyramid businesses.
“The next attempt to review our economic policy has to now look more at business conditions. We have done well with infrastructure, but we now need to organise small businesses,” he said.
“You need to have good infrastructure but also excellent businesses to utilise the infrastructure. Otherwise, the infrastructure may not even pay itself.”
Many markets developed during the Kibaki era have also been abandoned by traders to line up along the roads to catch the attention of customers. Those who have chosen this path are gaining an edge over those who stick to the designated selling areas.
In Nairobi’s Eastleigh, synonymous with shopping malls, hawking and outdoor selling still thrive. It is all about the customer.
The cutthroat competition in 2016 saw traders operating in malls stage protests against influx of hawkers along streets.
For Kenya Revenue Authority, the growing informal businesses are also posing taxation challenges. The introduction of presumptive tax has not done much to correct this.
But it is a necessary evil for the economy, one that the government proudly quotes when mentioning the number of jobs created in the economy.
In 2020, official data showed the informal sector accounted for 14.51 million of the total 17.41 million jobs in the economy.
Many of those people in the informal sector are victims of unemployment, meaning they are not fully utilising their abilities.
But with the bills piling, the hawker must figure out how to make money on both the highways and the alleyways.