Copycat city business and how they are killing businesses

Kenyans rendered jobless by the coronavirus pandemic sell different foodstuff along the Northern Bypass Road in Nairobi on May 18, 2020. [Edward Kiplimo, Standard]

The section of the Northern Bypass near Windsor Hotel could easily pass as a temporary parking space going by the number of vehicles that have pulled up by the roadside. 

However, the reality becomes apparent when the occupants open their car boots to reveal ripening fruits, green leafy vegetables and sacks of cereals, all for sale to those driving past.

In the days since the coronavirus pandemic struck, the thriving mini market that cropped up virtually overnight has become the symbol of the disruptive effect the pandemic has had on the jobs sector.

The coronavirus pandemic and the resulting loss of jobs has forced Kenyans to make some tough decisions over their source of income.

What started with a single person converting their car into a mini market to make a living during the pandemic by selling farm produce spawned a wave of retailers who descended on the highway. 

Tens of vehicles, in all their varying makes and colours, are parked along the highway selling stuff from their boots.

But this ingenious idea, which was born out of the desperation to remain afloat during the pandemic, is now coming to naught. The fleet of car boot sellers is facing a new challenge – competition for market.

The pool of car boot sales in the city and some busy sections in the estates tell the story of the Kenyan business scene, where copycat businesses are ubiquitous.

A quick stroll across the city reveals the extent of copycat business models. 

While the upside to the customer is that they are spoilt for choice, business owners are struggling to make ends meet due to the cutthroat competitive environment with a similar portfolio of products that are not differentiated.

From Mpesa shops, boutiques, restaurants, hawking, boda boda and even in real estate, the success of one venture leads to a host of other clones. In Nairobi, every other shop is either a nail parlour, sells clothes and shoes, mobile phones and accessories or is an Mpesa shop.

In real estate industry, the frenzy of malls led to a number of the buildings remaining unoccupied for periods on end yet more malls are coming up across the city. Now, as competition intensifies, nail business owners are having to literally pull women off the streets to get some customers.

John Kingori, who has sold clothes at Imenti House for the past 10 years, says the business has become so common.

“When I started the business 10 years ago there were very few boutiques. Now you’d be lucky to make enough sales to sustain the business; there are so many of us,” he said.

His shop, on the ground floor of Imenti House measuring around 10 feet, is one of the bigger and better stocked in the premises. Kingori said he had considered starting another business, but was heavily invested and chose to push on.

“I have thought about starting something else but this is what I know so I just have to struggle on,” he said. In the same building, there are about 10 shops on the ground floor alone which sell perfumes.

Selling perfumes is one of the more recent small business trends in the city.

Mary Njeri said she was working in a shop before and when she saved enough, she opened her own shop.

“Naturally when I thought about starting my own business, it had to be selling perfumes because that is what I know,” she said.

Street hawkers reinvented themselves from selling sweets in traffic to stocking skipping ropes and masks.

Partly due to the large number of vendors hawking masks and the oversupply, masks are no longer the lucrative business they once were when the pandemic started and accessing a mask was difficult.

A surgical mask now goes for Sh30 off the streets, down from Sh100 as vendors compete to make a sale.

One of the other activities that the coronavirus encouraged was skipping rope during quarantine as an inexpensive full-body workout.

Suddenly, there was a surge in the demand for skipping ropes during the Covid-19 outbreak. The hawkers, who stocked them, were selling out quicker than they had anticipated. As a result, even more hawkers switched to sell skipping ropes. 

Now that supply has exceeded demand, hundreds of street vendors are stuck with merchandise that is not moving.

XN Iraki, an associate professor at the University of Nairobi, said the upside to copycat business is that it will force businesses to be innovative.

“When you start a business and make money people will always want to make money like you. It forces people to be innovative so that we don’t always have to deal with the same ideas,” he said.

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