Nairobi’s eastern bypass is often interrupted at the roundabout to Windsor Golf & Country Club by a queue of vehicles on the roadside. The drivers are queuing to buy sugarcane. I joined them recently.
The young man, with the precision of a surgeon, peels off the hard part of the cane, then cuts it into small pieces and places these in a small polythene pouch, each going for Sh20.
The young man was quick to point out that the cane is from Kisii. I hear the same story when I buy sugarcane on Ngong Road. The market seems to have believed that the best sugarcane is from Kisii; this is good branding.
I did a quick calculation and noted that one long piece of sugarcane could give him four pouches; that’s a cool Sh80. The wheelbarrow had about 50 pieces of sugarcane, giving him Sh4,000 per day. That translates to Sh80,000 a month if he does not work over the weekend.
That is sweet money anytime, anywhere. Selling sugarcane might appear “dirty” and unglamorous. But the money is good.
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Selling sugarcane and other small hustles like roasting maize, cassava or KDF might seem small businesses, but the returns are not small.
Curiously, the consumers of these roadside products are not themselves hustlers. This ensures a steady demand for the hustlers’ products. Their success is based on another factor, their apparent low price, just Sh20 a pouch. It’s for the same reason that we buy sweets just before we check out in supermarkets.
In the long run, such small hustles are very profitable. But we ignore them in business schools, preferring well established firms, often foreign owned or listed on the stock markets.
We should be focusing on how to scale up such small business into multinationals. Suppose we can buy the same sugarcane in supermarkets just like muthokoi and githeri nowadays? Suppose it is branded?
Starting small and scaling up such small businesses should be the focus of policy makers, academics and entrepreneurs. That is the way to bridge the missing middle in Africa, with very many small firms, many big firms mostly multinationals and very few medium sized firms. Through such small firms like sugarcane sellers, we can spawn the next generation of African transnational corporations - and in our lifetime.