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.

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    Benson Omenda, 48, has been tailoring clothes for residents in Nairobi’s Kibera slum for more than 15 years. “I fear the best days are behind us, especially now that the second-hand clothes markets have arrived, meaning tailored clothes are not so longer popular."
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Less than an hour after the results of Kenya’s presidential election were announced late in December 2007, the fires started in Kibera, Nairobi’s largest slum.

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.

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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.”

Peter Ogweno, 32, Alfa Electronics

“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.

“What I need is simple – capital. Then I can go to the suppliers in town and buy things in cartons of many, instead of packets of few. Then the price is lower and my profit is higher. But where do I find the money for the wholesalers like that? When the sales are good I can raise $6 a day in profit, but even that’s not enough to cover the bills I have to pay. That’s why I cannot move on.

“Another challenge is being a mother, sometimes I have to close my work if I have to take my kids to school or prepare meals, or to go to town to buy more goods. There are customers who come, but you are gone.

“Since I started my business I have been thinking that by now it should have progressed very far. But everything has not been good, I see I am not growing the way I thought I would. I have ambitions still. I would like to modify this place to make my wares more attractive to customers. It rained yesterday, but usually there is too much dust outside there, I want to make it so that if there’s dust, it does not come direct to my candies. Something like a glass top or box. I am aiming for that. One day, I’ll be out from where I am and I’ll be somewhere better.”

Benson Omenda, 48, Jasaye Tailoring Group

“After the post-election violence, we had such a problem. Before that I was having six sewing machines, and three employees, and my shop was big. But then all the machines were destroyed by the fire. The one I am remaining with now was safe only because it was in my house at that time.

“At the time I started here 15 years ago, there was no real challenge because there was no second-hand clothes market. People liked to order new clothes, new suits, new trousers. But now we have these ready-made clothes second-hand, sent from foreign countries, that’s the time when tailoring started going down.

“Still I like this place because of all the people who are bypassing here. There can be good numbers of customers. Really, I am dreaming of finding a contract for making school uniforms for the children at the schools here. There are more than 2,000 enrolled, so close to my shop. If I get money now, and I report to the schools that I have the materials, they will send children to buy. But I need more than $1,250 to fill that contract. Where do I find that? Already I went to the bank, but they tell me I need something as a collateral. I have nothing like that.

“I am supporting all of my family, we are more than seven people, but my income is too small. I don’t know if the best days for my business are already gone, or they are coming.”

Washington Akongo, 25, Bilmel Investments Ltd.

“I has been less than one month since I opened this business, I am involved in the mobile money transfer system of Kenya called M-Pesa. People come here with their cellphones and they can send money directly to someone anywhere in the country. This is a technological revolution for us. Even for people in other countries I hear you don’t have this.

“In the course of the day, I am engaged in this business, and evenings I am studying as a student of accounts in the Central Business District. To start this business I got a loan from my parents and some friends, this was my first business. I had the objective to work in retail banking, I talked with some big banks here but there were many factors hindering me, a lack of capital, some technical knowledge. So I decided to open a M-Pesa, to learn details of money movements. I want to be a bank agent, to do deposits and withdrawals for customers, account opening, activating dormant customers, all in this shop as an agent. That is something I will aim for soon.

“I heard that there were some problems here after the elections. But look and see: that must all be behind us now when you see the number of businesses here. I have too much competition, and I am only one month old as a business. I have to do some things to gain a competitive edge, I cannot talk to you about that in case my competitors read this.

“But I must say that the capital that I’m operating with is not enough. I was thinking of getting a loan from the bank to expand this business. Maybe it will be too expensive, but you have to try so you can succeed. I’m really optimistic about my future. I’m studying, I’m in this new line of business, I am learning more and more. I dream that one day I will be CEO of a big company. Why not?”

This post is part of the Daily Dispatch project chronicling life in Nairobi, Kenya throughout the month of April.

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