The huge hawker headache in city centre
They display their goods just about anywhere, either on sacks spread out on the ground, or on makeshift carton stands, making it hard for pedestrians to navigate their way on the streets.
Some of the women have their babies with them, so they have to keep an eye on their young ones even as they remain on the lookout for the dreaded Nairobi County askaris.
Welcome to street hawking, a phenomenon that threatens to turn Nairobi’s central business district (CBD) into an open-air market.
It starts with one hawker setting up a temporary sales point outside a building and before you know it, he or she has been joined by several others, effectively creating an open-air market that often hampers access to legitimate businesses.
What began as small undertakings on street pavements and walkways have now morphed into fully fledged illegal markets that operate in areas with high human traffic such as transport nodes, bus parks or stops, prominent street corners, alleys and roads, with shopfronts on roads such as Tom Mboya, Moi Avenue, Aga Khan Walk and Ronald Ngala bearing the brunt of the invasion.
Street hawking is now a thriving business located mostly in areas where the vendors are visible to the customers they intend to attract with their cheap products, which tend to be counterfeits of the brands sold in retail shops around the city.
The hawkers sell a wide variety of items including clothes, shoes, cosmetics, mobile phone accessories, foods such as fruits and vegetables, and even toys.
They routinely descend on the streets by mid-morning and remain there until late evening, when the “pesky” county askaris, colloquially known as kanjo, are no longer around.
But what fuels this illegal market that has become so widespread that it seems impossible to control?
First is the city’s high population, thanks to its status as the country’s administrative and commercial capital, with a daytime population of around 6 million people and a nighttime population of some 4.5 million people, according to the World Population Review.
Then there is the corruption at the City Inspectorate, the body responsible for maintaining law and order around the city that has, ironically, been taken over by a clique of bribe-hungry askaris who work in cahoots with the hawkers instead of getting them off the streets.
The situation has been exacerbated by lack of employment, which pushes many people into this form of self-employment.
Nairobi County Secretary Dr Robert Ayisi notes two other interesting factors: First, that county askaris work from 8am to 5pm, which gives the hawkers free rein after the askaris leave. Second, some hawkers feign disability or tag small children along, making them hard to arrest because they attract public sympathy.
Asked whether it is possible to get hawkers off the streets, a male hawker on Tom Mboya replies: “Let me tell you something; hawkers are not going to leave the streets anytime soon. In fact, their numbers will keep on increasing. For instance, my brother is in secondary school. If he does not make it to university, he will join me here since getting employment in this country is almost impossible nowadays.”
He sees hawking as an easy place to start since it requires few skills, little experience, basic academic knowledge and little capital, yet it earns good returns.
He adds that he has already initiated his brother into the business to prepare him for an uncertain future.
Another hawker operating outside Nakumatt Supermarket on Moi Avenue says the huge number of people on the streets, coupled with easy access to their products — which are cheaper than those sold in shops — makes people prefer buying from them, thereby encouraging the business.
“Suppose you want to buy earrings, will you go to the supermarket where they are expensive and the queue is long, or get them here where the service is quick and at a half the price?” he asks.
Meanwhile, a female hawker on Ronald Ngala Street confirms what is widely rumoured: that they pay a well-connected group of Council askaris to allow them to operate freely.
“We pay them a Sh50 bribe every day as ‘operation fees’. Most of them collect the money from specific hawkers but when their seniors come, we have to flee,” she says.
She adds that one cannot operate if he/she gets on the wrong side of the askaris, citing the case of a colleague who was banned from the streets after she named the officer she was paying protection money in an interview with a newspaper reporter two years ago.
But she adds that they don’t mind bribing the askaris since what they earn from sales more than makes up for it.
However, outgoing Nairobi County Secretary Robert Ayisi refutes this allegation.
“Nobody has ever reported a county askari for colluding with hawkers,” he says.
It is worth noting that Muthurwa Market, the Sh700 million facility designed to accommodate 8,000 traders in an attempt to control hawking, has not resolved the problem.
County authorities have been involved in a cat-and-mouse game with the hawkers, trying to push them out of the CBD but in vain. Political undertones, corrupt city askaris and light penalties have made it nearly impossible to rid the city of hawkers.
However, outgoing Nairobi County Governor Evans Kidero is optimistic that a Nairobi without hawkers is possible.
“Our by-laws are very clear that no obstruction should be caused, whether by a vehicle, human or object, that interferes with people’s businesses. The hawkers should not be on the streets because we have made for them places where they can work, and we will not allow them to violate the city by-laws,” he says.
Equally notable are the views of two of his fellow contestants for the city’s governorship, Mike “Sonko” Mbuvi and Peter Kenneth.
Mr Sonko maintains that he would allow the hawkers to continue operating on the streets while Mr Kenneth says he would get them out of the CBD, but only after building a modern market for them.
However, Dr Ayisi dismisses the politicians promises as mere campaign gimmicks. But he acknowledges that hawkers inconvenience shop owners, who have licences to operate in the CBD.
“The law is very clear and whoever made the by-laws that guide the city did not make a mistake. They were put in place long before the county government came to be and it would be unreasonable to say that you will allow hawkers in the CBD. If somebody without a licence is allowed to sell the same wares in front of your shop, that it is not fair.”
Mr Ayisi says that hawking is one of the nine nuisances they set out to rid the city of when they came to power more than four years ago, adding that there is a team in place and mechanisms to deal with the menace.
“We have to restore peace and order in the CBD and we are determined to rid the CBD of other nuisances like boda bodas, street children and car washers, among others, he says.
He adds that the county has designated specific areas for hawkers in Pumwani and Ruai, with plans to set up another area in Dandora, all aimed at settling the problem once and for all. He says it is shoppers who should look for hawkers, instead of the hawkers bringing their wares to shoppers.
But even with these tough provisions, the hawkers continue to operate in the city, from the dark alleys to the main streets, knowing that they hold all the aces, since the politicians are worried about losing the hawker’s votes if they evict them.
Joseph Kitutu, who sells socks on Tom Mboya Street, says the General Election could not have come at a better time since he can now operate without fear of being harassed by the notorious city askaris.
He notes that since late last year, things have become better since politicians are faced with the tough choice between enforcing the law and losing votes, or turning a blind eye to the hawkers with the hope of reaping from that generosity on election day.
“We can now come to the city centre as early as 10am or 11am. We couldn’t do that before. We would be harassed every now and then by the kanjo but now things have relaxed,” he says.
Another hawker selling shoes on River Road next to the Globe Cinema Roundabout, and who has been in the business since 2007, concurs, saying harassment by City askaris has declined, and that they can start hawking very early unlike early last year, whey they would sometimes open as late as 7pm.
Dr Ayisi acknowledges that ridding the city of hawkers is huge task but points out that the penalties for the offence are not deterrent enough.
“We arrest and charge them in the court and they are fined. What keeps them going is the leniency of penalties; for instance, they pay fines of between Sh200 and Sh500, so this is a risk they are willing to take,” he says.
“Until the government enacts laws that deter the practice, for instance by instituting heavy penalties, then solving this problem will take a long time.”he adds.