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Founder of city’s stalls business was left crying

In business, it is not always the first person with a product, service or concept who reaps the most from it. Nowhere is this more evident than in Nairobi’s flourishing shopping malls, popularly known as exhibitions.

The match-box size stalls, now found in virtually all of Kenya’s towns, were the idea of an enterprising and flamboyant Tanzanian who had made Kenya his home.

At the onset of liberalisation of Kenya’s economy when price controls were done away with, Nelson Kajuma launched his Freemark International Trading Company in Nairobi.

Massive downpour

He then rented the 50,000 square feet of space that comprises Kenyatta International Conference Centre’s plenary hall.

He sub-divided the space into open-plan stalls of as little as a table of four feet by two feet. After this, he went into an advertising blitz; anybody with any item to sell was welcome to rent the moderately prized spaces.

Coming at the onset of liberalisation, many Kenyans had travelled to markets as far afield as Dubai, Egypt, Thailand and Turkey.

They had come back with an assortment of merchandise but did not have the astronomical sums demanded in goodwill and start-up rents to take up commercial space in the city.

Kajuma was the solution and he was overwhelmed with customers.

His second Freemark exhibition could not even fit the now “tiny space” of the KICC plenary hall; so he built a massive makeshift structure in the Centre’s open air grounds. It ran almost the length of the space from the water fountains to Parliament Road.

It wasn’t a rain-proof structure as some exhibitors discovered to their cost. As hundreds of them ferried in their merchandise ready for the exhibition’s opening, the heavens opened. The massive downpour drenched tonnes of goods.

Some exhibitors couldn’t be sure if it wasn’t raining more heavily inside the structure than outside.

A frenzied Kajuma, shovel in hand, joined crews of workmen trying to drain the water from the stalls.

He impressed the exhibitors for being in the thick of things and none was known to press a claim of compensation against him. There were even sympathetic murmers, mainly from businesswomen who comprised the majority of the exhibitors.

It was a pointer to Kajuma’s political connections of the time that he could build his makeshift structure at the KICC, a building claimed by Kanu, Kenya’s ruling party at the time. But then, KICC under Kanu had all the characteristics of a slum, its skyscraper edifice notwithstanding.

Stalls razed

Party hirelings lodged in some of the translation booths and cooked ugali in them using paraffin stoves. The building’s lifts had potholes and its stairways were dark, forbidding alleyways. Kanu lost the building when it was swept out of power by Mwai Kibaki’s Narc in 2002.

For his exhibition at the KICC grounds, Kajuma attracted a full house. Approached by one prospective exhibitor, he snapped: “We’re sold out!” Even the kings of Kenya’s retail trade, the famed dukawallas of South Asian descent, could not beat him.

So they joined him. They arranged to have their wares sold by third parties at Kajuma’s stalls because that is where all customers were headed.

So successful did this become that after it ran its course, Kajuma set up what he planned to be Freemark’s permanent home at the Nairobi Railway Club grounds.

The building was another makeshift behemoth, constructed with anything from metal pipes, canvas, wooden off-cuts, sand and cement to polythene. It had two levels and ate up all the space between the clubhouse and Uhuru Highway. It was very easy to get lost in it.

Now, his customers could pay monthly rent. Many did. Freemark became the place to go for almost anything. Kajuma’s fame spread like a bushfire as shopkeepers in the city wondered what to do with this phenomenon.

But on the night of August 30, 2000, all this changed. A fire broke out at Freemark and the entire structure, probably the greatest fire-friendly commercial building ever constructed, was razed to the ground. Hundreds of traders lost their entire stock and cash.

Many were treated for shock. But the fact that it happened at night meant that there were no casualties.

Kajuma was picked by television cameras weeping and being restrained from entering the burning building to fight the fire with his bare hands. He ended up in hospital where he was treated and discharged. He emerged with bandaged hands and a bruised face to a welter of conspiracy theories.

Some said Freemark’s runaway growth in so short a time had overwhelmed him. People claiming to know him well said he was a skilled and energetic marketer of ideas but a bad manager of money who had run up millions of shillings in debt.

Some suggested he had set his own premises on fire as a possible way out of his inextricable personal misery that was couched with a veneer of success for public consumption. Others claimed it was creditors did it.

Devil worship

Still others said it was started by retrenched workers whose benefits, popularly known as golden handshakes, he had taken. The only point of agreement in the myriad of conspiracy theories was that Kajuma did not have a shortage of people who wished him ill.

Kajuma seemed particularly stung by the suggestion that he could have been an arsonist to his own business. Weeping openly before the cameras and heaving with volcanic indignation, he labelled those peddling these stories as devil worshippers who would eat their words when the rebuilt bigger and better Freemark opened its doors to the public.

Devil worship was at that time a hot topic in Kenya.

In the previous year, President Moi had instituted a commission of inquiry into devil worship in the country.

The commission’s conclusion that the practice was rife in Kenya was still reverberating at the time of the Freemark fire.