Hawkers have become a nuisance to formal businesses in Nairobi's CBD

A price tag on mitumba items on sale at Toi Market in Kibra, Nairobi, on June 9, 2022. [Stafford Ondego, Standard]

Today, we take the unpopular path of calling out the chaotic scenes that this city has become. At the risk of sounding elitist, the bitter truth is that there is a limit for everything under the sun. This is if order and sanity has to be maintained. Even the scripture talks of our creator as being a God of order, not chaos.

There is no economic philosophy, Bottoms-Up or Tops-down, that can justify the city managers letting the country’s capital degenerate into one big mad house. If there is one place that any person of reasonable temperament dreads to be in this city currently, then it is the Central Business District (CBD). This chaos have made it to headline news in the mainstream media.

However, for any keen observer, the City County Government is quietly converting any public space, road reserves, pedestrian pavements and utility spaces into hawkers' playing field. Besides, boda bodas have taken over every single space and ride from whatever direction of the city streets with impunity. Public Service Vehicles have also been allocated every single space of traditionally major retail streets like Tom Mboya, Accra Road, Luthuli Avenue, Ronald Ngala and River Road as drop-off and pick-up points for passengers.

The onslaught is not only limited to open spaces. The county leadership is currently embroiled in a bitter dispute with powerful resident associations over a non-participatory policy to re-open controlled development zones for high-rise buildings. It is unfortunate the politics of shareholding have taken the place of reason, common sense and proven means to national development in the management of the city 

Ironically, as the capital city descends into planned chaos and disorder, the leaders of Kisumu County Government, the third city in the country, had to take a politically risky decision to clean the lakeside city of the same malady. Anybody who has been to Kisumu city of late can attest to the pleasant order and ambience of its CBD area.       

For avoidance of doubt, this column does not in anyway seek to deviate from its core obligation of advocating for pro-poor economic policies. The hard reality is that the Kenya Kwanza administration seems to have stretched the ‘Hustlernomics’ way too far and out of context to time-tested development approaches.

Three questions easily emerge from this: One, can a country develop with such levels of disorder in its cities and urban areas? Two, what are the benefits and costs of letting the city slip into the hands of uncontrolled hawking menace? And three, do we have any empirical evidence of a country that have developed through such a model?

The evidence

Celebrated urban planner Alain Bertaud, in his book ‘Order Without Design: How Markets Shape Cities’, argues for the need to utilise urban economics tools to improve urban planning. According to this book, urban planning is a craft learned through practice and planners decisions have immediate impact on the ground. These impacts can be reflected on the width of streets, minimum size of land parcels and heights of buildings.

Bertuad opines that the salient element enshrined in urban economic theories, models and empirical evidence is the need to improve productivity of cities and welfare of urban citizens. To realise this objective, markets as central elements of urban areas provide an indispensable mechanism for cities development.

Drawing from five decades of urban planning experience and lessons of 40 cities, Bertuad advocates for five key considerations in structuring urban planning and development. These include establishing linkages of cities productivity to size of their labour markets; design of infrastructure and markets as complementary to each other; distribution of land prices and their densities; and importance of mobility and affordability. He also critiques land use regulations in a number of cities instead of alleviating clear negative externalities.

Assuming these are plausible arguments to planning of modern cities, we must then assess their practical relevance to our current predicament.


For starters, the chaos unfolding at the City’s CBD should be scenes from the 1960/70s, shortly after independence, not after six decades of self-rule. The fact that the only job opportunities that seems left in the city is hawking of second or third hand clothes is enough to sent our leaders recoiling in shame.

There can be no assignment of blame on this because all the top leaders in power today have been in strategic positions in government at least for the past three decades. It is tragic that they are promoting these chaotic scenes in our streets as their novel idea to transform the socio-economic welfare of the nation.

Without belabouring too much for structured evidence, a casual observation would point a clear connection between the closure of the formerly prestigious Intercontinental and Hilton hotels in the CBD to the chaotic scenes in the streets. Further, in the three decades from 1980 to around 2010, Tom Mboya and River Road streets were the proud shopping destinations for clothing for the city’s middle class. Luthuli Avenue was the place to go for any quality electronics.

Moi avenue to the West of the CBD were the preserve of the high middle class and the wealthy. Today, all these places have been reduced to tiny stores and hawkers' paradise. While some may want to argue about shifting dynamics in the city’s consumption habits, one cannot deny the toxicity of the operating environment for formal businesses in the CBD. Imagine what it feels like to pay costly business license permits and all manner of levies to the city government, only for hawkers to block your business entrance with mitumba, vegetables or fruits. We have not even touched on pickpockets who thrive in such chaos.

Looking at the macroeconomic level, how many formal jobs have been destroyed when these establishments close shop? How much income and corporate tax revenue has gone to the winds due to this pandemonium? Is it not ironical of a government to let loose on controls that provide quality jobs only to be replaced by highly informalised means of livelihoods? For practical illustration, how many hawking jobs are worth a manager's job that was destroyed at Intercontinental or Hilton when they closed shop? How many more quality jobs will have to be destroyed before the city managers and the country’s national leaders come back to their senses?

Thinking forward, suppose the national government partnered with the City County government to build a mega multipurpose market, well organised with adequate utilities and other infrastructure at the Muthurwa/Burma areas. For argument's sake, let’s assume we only start with 150,000 stores, lease them out at subsidised rates for start and gradually increase rates as the market matures. Then we could ban all forms of hawking in the CBD and other strategic sub-urban areas in the city. Such markets can be scaled to other strategic points in the city and other towns of the country.

How many quality businesses and jobs could we create under such a strategic intervention? Won’t such organised markets formalise these small hawkers' businesses to link them into the tax net? Suppose we then banned mitumba imports and linked this businesses to the Economic Processing Zones (EPZs) and farmers societies in our villages? Isn’t this the value chain logic that the President’s top economic advisor fancies about without any tangible action plan?

Stretching our imaginations further, is this not a better investment idea than the toxic affordable housing scheme? Is this not the model that has been proven and has worked economic wonders in all great  and highly productive cities?