Small business owners in a Nairobi slum display Kenyan resilience
A string of small shops in Kibera, a Nairobi slum, were looted and burned in the post-election violence of 2007. Today, many of those store owners are once again turning a profit.
Kibera, Nairobi, Kenya
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Supporters of rival political parties launched a month of attacks against their opponents in a wave of violence which eventually killed 1,300 people nationwide.
Along one of the frontlines in Kibera lay the 100-odd small shops – selling everything from bottles of Coke to cheap plastic flip-flips – lining the 500-yard road leading down to Olympic Secondary School.
All were looted then torched. Businesses built over years were lost in a day.
Today, however, cautious optimism is back, as Nairobi’s irrepressible push for profit overcomes fears of a repeat of the “clashes” as the next election looms.
Several members of the self-help Olympic Small Business Organization shared their thoughts.
Cynthia Achieng, 34, Olympic Beauty Shop
“You can’t dwell on things that are not your fault, like my burnt store or my stolen goods. If I did that, I would be lost. My kids are young, their Daddy lost his job, so what can I do? We need something on the table at the end of the day. After the violence, I decided to pick up from scratch. I started just putting down some sacks on the street, putting my wares on them. Eventually, I progressed, I built this kiosk with some help from neighbors. Today I am selling more things even than before the violence. I have expanded my business, and now you can see, I’m moving ahead. I am optimistic.
“I prefer dealing with women’s goods than men’s, it’s simpler, you know we women are vulgar spenders, we see something, we buy it even if we did not plan for it. I know well how to sweet talk people to separate from their money, that’s my profession. If I don’t sweet talk them, they will just walk away.
“Business has gone down because of post-election, and as for now the economy is very down, inflation is high, it’s too unbearable. Nowadays people only cater for food, not other expenditures. What can stop me from achieving my dreams is only the politicking in Kenya. I don’t want to tell you that our government will help us, they will not. The common man will always remain as he or she is, unless he works hard. It is up to me to rise up and do something good for myself, or for the society. That’s how we will be moving on.”
“I was working for another guy in another electronics repair shop, but I had been keeping some small money little by little and I had some small capital. After the violence, I saw that this was the time to open my own shop. It was not enough money, I had to start small and work hard to progress.
“The first few months, the biggest challenge was getting new customers. I had some few friends they were helping me to find customers, and I brought some from the old place. Now my momentum is building up very highly. We repair radios, TVs, amplifiers, microwaves. Most things we manage, it’s only that repairing a machine from US, Europe, UK, spares are not available. Those from China, they are many and not any problems.
“What I need is a more modern and bigger shop. These ones here are temporary and we are always being told by the City Council that they will be removed. There is no way to find a loan to expand your business if there is the risk that tomorrow a bulldozer will come and pull it away with no warning.
“But I have some confidence that things can change. In five years you’ll find me here running this business, but it will be bigger. I don’t need to go to these upper class shopping centers in the city. Business is business wherever you are.”
Evalin Aoko, 38, Candy Stall
“I started this business in 2006, selling candy to the children at the school nearby here, they are my best customers, even by 6:00 a.m. they are buying. I have my stock here on this tray outside my friend’s shop. When I started, I had something like $30 as capital, it allowed me to buy the first stock. Since then I have had to take some loans to buy more stock, or pay school fees for my children, or just to put food on the table.