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The men wheeling Nairobi’s economy

By Awal Mohammed and Fred Kagonye | October 14th 2020
A trader pulls a handcart (mkokoteni) loaded with onions at Marikiti on October 10, 2020. [Elvis Ogina,Standard]

The smell of Wakulima Market hits you before the structure itself comes into view. The smell of rotting vegetables and sweaty human bodies assaults your nostrils long before you set foot in Nairobi’s most important fresh produce market.

And just as you get accustomed to the smells and swarm of bodies, a harsh “ondekea mkokoteni” could make you jump out of your skin as handcart pullers swerve mercilessly through the market.

The market feeds almost every household in the capital, with the rickety, graffiti-filled handcarts pulled by sweaty men ferrying essential foods offloaded from lorries and pick-up trucks from upcountry to your estate mama mboga.

Wakulima Market was built in 1966 to serve Nairobi’s growing population. As of 1992, 2,000 traders called the market home. But 26 years later in 2018, the Nairobi County government estimated at least 12,000 traders operate out of it.

At the heart of the market’s ecosystem are mikokoteni that ferry bags of fresh produce to and from the market.

The value of the business is not well documented – just like the informal sector it drives. But it runs in a big-money industry.

According to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) 2020 Economic Survey, the country produced two million tonnes of potatoes last year, the bulk of it finding its way to Wakulima Market.

Further, the country consumed 395,000 metric tonnes of tomatoes, with Kenyans consuming 2.2 million metric tonnes of vegetables overall.

Nearly half of this produce is transported via rickety handcarts. And the men navigating these mikokoteni are part of a well-structured, multi-million-shilling business.

The price you pay for a dozen tomatoes from your grocer, for instance, will pay all those in the Marikiti business chain.

It will also include the payment to the farmer, the loader who got the produce onto the truck from the farm, transport to the city, the county government trading fee, the cartels along the supply chain, and the porter who offloads the tomatoes from the trucks onto the mkokoteni.

The real owners of the handcarts are rarely seen in public, and they do not have to do the back-breaking work of transporting farm produce across the city. They simply lease out the handcarts to anyone willing to do the hard work for a fee.

There are more than 2,000 handcarts around Muthurwa and Wakulima markets.

Due to their growing numbers, some handcart operators have been pushed outside the two markets to make way for delivery lorries.

They now line the road near the Muthurwa roundabout all the way to the former Wakulima House on Haile Sellasie Avenue and wait for customers. As early as 3am, the handcart operators find their way to Wakulima Market and jostle for space.

David Ngige – who at first glance looks like one of the many cart pullers in the area –owns and controls a chunk of the empire that controls the movement of produce at the vegetable market.

“I know all my carts just like a farmer knows their animals. I know which one is missing, who has it and who hasn’t paid me,” he told The Standard.

And returns have been good for the former driver.

“From this business, I drive myself home. I live in my own house in Ruiru, and my three children all go to private schools. I also religiously deposit my daily contribution of Sh1,000 into a Sacco,” Ngige, who is 41, said.

He has been in the business for 12 years, and a conservative estimate puts the handcarts he owns at 87, making him one of their single-biggest owners.

The carts are categorised as ‘shuttles’, which are smaller, or ‘pick-ups’, which are larger. The former is hired out at Sh40 per trip within the city centre and Sh50 out of town. The larger mkokoteni is hired out at Sh50 per trip within the CBD and Sh70 for out-of-town deliveries. It costs Sh150 to use one for a day.

While Ngige operates during the day, another group, dubbed Marikiti Market Service, takes over operations at night.

The 10-member group has been at it since 1990. Having started with three handcarts, they expanded to the current 100 carts that they hire out under an ‘Usiku Sacco’ banner.

Any lorry that delivers vegetables at the market at night must use their handcarts to offload. Unlike their daytime counterparts, they do not transport the produce outside the market’s walls, and their charges are different.

For every sack of vegetables, they charge between Sh30 and Sh50, depending on the size, plus another Sh50 for the cart.

On average, the group collects Sh400 from a single handcart per bag transported.

“I have been in this group for 30 years now. We operate under rules and we share whatever we get. The money we get from renting out the carts, we deposit  daily and only share it out twice a year,” said George Wainaina, the group’s secretary.

“For our daily needs, we share out the money we receive from the charges per bag.” 

On a good day, operators pocket Sh30,000.

Their empire thrives on the ever-increasing number of unemployed youth who find their way to Wakulima Market to earn a living.

According to KNBS, the country’s informal sector generated seven million jobs last year.

As of 2018, the sector accounted for 83.6 per cent of Kenya’s total employment, hiring almost five times more people than the formal sector.

But the mkokoteni business is not all rosy. Ngige said any disruptions in the food supply chain trickles down to them.

“Whenever you hear a farmer cry, I cry as well because there will be fewer bags to be carried and my carts will not be hired.”

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