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Luos love panel beating, Kisiis run matatus, Kaos sell tyres and Kiuks tu-Ploti... Which tribe is your biashara?

NEWS
Kisumu City CBD [Michael Mute, Standard]

It appears that business in Nairobi has a tribe. Mtu wa mahindi’(roasted maize seller) is likely to come from Murang’a and therefore will be a Kikuyu.

There is no prize for guessing which community leads in panel beating or crafting the best furniture.

Kamande, the guy from Murang’a fanning roast maize by the roadside is likely to use a matatu owned by Cornelius Nyambaka, a Kisii public service vehicle operator on the Kasarani-Mwiki route.

And when Nyambaka’s matatu gets a puncture, trust me, he will take it to Masaku Tyre Masters, where Sammy Kasyoki, will take to the wheels with the dexterity he employs in maneuvering Mbooni Hills, where he hails from.

But this business bias is not strictly a Kenyan thing.

In New York, Italians own the bulk of restaurants and casinos. Even in Nairobi, the owner of one of the city’s renowned Italian restaurants is Gaetano Ruffo, a former singer with Fellini Five

The Jews, on the hand, are notoriously gifted at controlling conglomerates encompassing banking, media, and movie production in Hollywood. 

 It is this specialization and proclivity of certain communities to excel in particular businesses that has given Nairobi its distinct entrepreneurial throb of a successful, modern, capitalist metropolis.

What could be the reason behind these tendencies?

That Kambas love the tyre business and Luos are masters of automotive engineering and woodwork has everything to do with the idiosyncrasies of the different communities.

Here are some of Nairobi’s known communities and their business leanings:

1. Kisii express

In most of Nairobi’s matatu routes, the driver and makanga is likely to be the duo of Moses Nyarori and Charles Makori from Kisiiland, who would converse in the loud shrilly tone of their mother tongue, in in-between the tunes of Sukuma bin Ongaro’s music that is a constant feature in these matatus.

Kawangware, Kayole, and Embakasi are more or less controlled by the Onkwanis and Omwanchas and not a few Bosiboris, who also seem to have taken over Rongai, Imara Daima and Kibera routes.

The Kamandes from Central Kenya, apart from roasting maize, also have a huge stake in the matatu business, and actually control the bulk of the routes in Nairobi.

Kepha Ongori, a matatu owner, says that it is the enduring entrepreneurial spirit of the Kisii and the Kikuyus that attracts them to this industry which tend to be associated with unruliness, rowdy touts and reckless drivers.

“Matatu business is fraught with difficulties - from police harassment to impossible traffic, you name it. Other communities consider the business too exacting to venture into it. It is our persistence and tough business skin that makes us endure the challenges,” says Ongori, who has operated matatus for more than 10 years.

“In addition, it is more promising than running a shop and does not require much to settle into. This is why many start-up businessmen prefer it,” he adds.

Another fleet owner, Alex Bitange, believes it is the strong kinship patterns among the Kisiis that drew many young people from the village to venture into matatu business in the city.

“Those who bought matatus initially invited their relatives from Kisii to work for them. These people then move on to work in other matatus when the vehicles became old. The result is that you end up with many young men in the sector. Then there are those who came to the city to look for jobs but ended up in the matatu sector after failing to secure employment in the formal sector,” Bitange notes.

2. ‘Kaos’ and tyres

The Kambas’ expertise in the tyre business is legendary. It goes way back. Folktales have it that Kambas were long-distance traders and hence needed durable footwear to trek from Mbooni to Mwembe Tayari in Mombasa while transporting ivory. Car tyres, therefore, came in handy, especially in the making of akala (tyre sandals), also widely associated with Kenya Police Service officers during colonial times.

Given they are precise curves, sculptors and weavers, they ventured into making shoes, and sandals (they are very good cobblers) and rubber from tyres became an ideal material.

The advantage of the highways passing through their shags (to Mombasa and Garissa) easily availed the rubber and also puncture repair jobs. Given they are weavers, the wires from the tyres came in handy in making bangles, necklaces and bracelets.

Presently, they control the tyre business in virtually all towns in the region, from Mombasa to Malaba. Interestingly, no other tribe has given them much competition in the repair of punctures.

3. The ‘Okuyu’ and ka-plot real estate

Their boldness to venture where others fear to tread has paid big time for some. Look at Ongata Rongai and tell me who, in the 1980s, thought anyone could live there? The Kikuyus’ business acumen and entrepreneurial spirit has given them control of land transactions, and with it, a huge stake in real state. The scarcity of land in Central continually spurs a yearning for a kaploti among young Kikuyu men. I would not be surprised if your landlord is one Mr Maina wa Njambi.

Their success has been boosted by proximity to Nairobi, access to credit, chamas and banks such as Family Bank, which fuelled the real estate inclination among the Kikuyu as early as the 1970s.

“Our proximity to the city offered us the initial exposure. Working in the settlers’ farms during the pre-independence era created a burning a desire in our grandfathers and fathers to repossess the land and property in the city centre,” says Milka Muthoni, a land economist, adding that, “The initial interaction with banks and credit led to the formation of Saccos. It is these cooperatives that made it possible for some people to own property in areas like Kirinyaga Road in town.”

Muthoni says that high population and fragmentation of land led to a fall in agricultural production in Kikuyu homesteads. The Kikuyus were therefore forced to seek an alternative means of survival, and many opted to aggressively venture into business as well as the real estate.

4.‘Omera,’ the mechanic from Nyando

The garages on Ladhies Road from Muthurwa to City Stadium have a disproportionate number of Omondis who control panel beating, rangi and repairs.

Sociologist Corazon Ouko links this to the traditional life of the Luos. “In the past, being a blacksmith was a prestigious calling. This craft was passed from one generation to the next. This is why the Luos tend to be good craftsmen, not just in jua kali or mechanics, but also in weaving and pottery,” Ouko says.

Jua kali artisans and mechanics are the modern-day equivalents of traditional craftsmen or blacksmiths.

Having grown at the lake side means they’re experts in anything ‘fishy’ and thus control the business of frying fish in sooty pans with wood fire.

5. ‘Murumes’ and veve

The Amerus are undisputed in the cultivation and distribution of miraa, the treasured green gold that became the centre of controversy after its export to European markets was banned last year. Locally, miraa, also known as veve, is a staple of matatu drivers and Somalis.

Somalis and Arabs, especially those in Yemen, are some of the world’s biggest consumers of miraa. Merus have a distinct monopoly of producing the best miraa in Kenya. That is why it is their specialty.

6. Maasais and miti shamba

 The Maasais are famed for their miti shamba, particularly of the aphrodisiac kind that apparently are effective. Legend has it that the Maasai are some of the more well-hung chaps in Kenya, and their athleticism in bed is part of national speculation.

The herbs are reportedly made from the bark of certain trees only found among the Maasai, as well as extracts from rhinoceros' tusks. Poaching is not a recent thing.

Paul Naserem, a 34-year-old PR practitioner says the drugs do work.

“They work, trust me.” He speaks. He says that the Maasai are mainly in the business of selling livestock, land, as well as their traditional regalia.

 

7. ‘Walalos’ and restaurants, clothes, shoes and electronics

Somali restaurants are some of the more affordable and passably posh attractions in the city today, besides also now running the show in computer trade, electronics’ accessories and consumables, while in Eastleigh all the good quality clothes and shoe stores are owned by Somalis.

They are also taking over forex bureaus, which is why the reputable Dahabshil money transfer business is their affair the world over.

Charles Onsati, an economist, says that “mostly, they trade in livestock which initially gave the capital to start the businesses. Besides, they have a very strong kinship and would pool resources to set up lucrative ventures. After the collapse of Somalia, many of them sought asylum in Western countries, from where they send vital remittances, which is the backbone of their business empires.”

8. Muhindi’s salt, match boxes and safety pins

Indians are famous for their business shrewdness, having started as dukawallas during the the colonial era and grown into industry magnates in almost all sectors of the economy. You will still find Indians in shops selling fabric, clothes, bags and anything in between on

Tom Mboya Street, River Road and Biashara Street. Their shopkeeping pedigree is so famed, so much that when the movie The Rise and Fall of Idi Amin was being made, the scene of Indians being expelled from Uganda was actually shot on Biashara Street.

And every other industry in Industrial Area is likely to be an Indian operation as well.

“They were probably the first to venture into formal retail trade business, that is beside the whites,” says Onsati. “They had access to credit and grew their businesses with seed money from what they made as skilled and semi-skilled labourers during the construction of the Kenya-Uganda railway at the turn of the 20th century.”