Author: Mary Itumbi

Stepping out in style in harsh economic times

A pair of second-hand, suede, black, six-inch boots arranged on the pavement catches her eye as she walks to the nearby bus stop carrying her mid-month household shopping from the Tusky’s supermarket a few meters away. In the shopping bag she has a packet of baking flour, a kilogram of sugar, four packets of milk and four toilet rolls. She pauses to admire the shoes and the man, sensing an opportunity to make a sale, leaps up to serve her.

A Kenyan vendor sells second-hand clothes, locally known as 'mitumba', at an open-air market in Nairobi. (Pic: AFP)
A Kenyan vendor sells second-hand clothes, locally known as ‘mitumba’, at an open-air market in Nairobi. (Pic: AFP)

Ni size gani? [What size is it?]” she asks.

“Forty shillings,” the street hawker responds.

Kujaribu ni bure [Trying it on is free],” he says.

Before she can resist the hawker has reached out to help. He puts her shopping bags in a safe place and helps her put on the boots she has been admiring. It is a perfect fit.

Ni how much?” she asks as she walks a few paces to get a feel for the shoes.

“It’s 800 shillings ($9).”

“What? That’s so much,” she retorts.

Bei ni ya kuongea [The price is negotiable],” the hawker replies.

The haggling goes on for a while and she finally settles for a price that she can manage. This woman is a reflection of others in Nairobi who rely on second-hand clothing and shoes to ensure they look good despite the harsh economic times.

Escalating prices
The escalating price of commodities is straining the life of the average Kenyan, especially those living in the city, who are already struggling to survive.

Kenya’s GDP growth rate stood at 5.2% during the first quarter of 2013 and the unemployment rate in the country stands at an estimated 40%. The cost of living has also greatly increased. A litre of milk today costs about 90 shillings ($1). Ten years ago the same litre of milk cost about 50 shillings. Mortgages, car loans and food budgets are increasing and many are left with the bare minimum from their monthly salary to cater for expenses, like buying clothes and shoes, that are expected to go with one’s social image.

But at the thriving second-hand businesses, located in open-air markets and small stalls in town, one can haggle over the price of anything, from shoes and clothes of all types to undergarments and bags. The hawkers that sell these items stay open up much later than regular clothing shops. The more adventurous hawkers are known to come to the downtown streets of Nairobi with their wares at night, when the regular businesses have closed and the nightlife is just beginning.

This presents an opportunity for those who work late and do not have an opportunity to shop during the day. It also targets people who did not think they had a budget for clothes or those who suddenly find themselves desperately in need of an item of clothing.

I myself have benefitted from the convenience of a roadside hawker. On one occasion my supervisor sent me to a meeting across town. City traffic in Nairobi can turn a 10-minute walk into a half-hour commute by car, so taking a taxi would not have made sense. Instead I opted to walk there in my impractical high heels. That evening, as I was making the painful 30-minute walk to the bus stop, leaning heavily against a colleague, I came across a hawker selling shoes on the pavement.

There was only one pair of sandals among the many closed shoes and high heels on offer. Without waiting for the hawker to offer to help, I picked up my heels, asked him to pack them into a paper bag for me and slipped my feet into the sandals. I did not waste time haggling, as I desperately needed the sandals. But they were so cheap that I didn’t feel cheated – they cost just 250 shillings ($3).

A boon for women
Second-hand clothes and shoes have been a boon to Kenyan women looking for clothing at an affordable price. Retail shops charge high prices. A blouse at Mr Price, considered to be an upmarket shop in Kenya, may cost up to 2 000 shillings ($24). The same blouse could be had second-hand for 800 shillings ($9). If one is really good at haggling, the prices could be as low as 600 shillings ($7).

Some savvy shoppers have even found ways to capitalise on the demand for second-hand clothing. Twenty-something Akisa Mathenge has made a business out of second-hand clothes shopping. Her unique selection of the clothes from second-hand stalls has many people asking if she could be their personal stylist and buy them second-hand clothes for wear at the office, church or home.

“I really enjoy dressing people up. When I find a client who wants me to buy them second-hand clothes, my first question is always to find out what they like wearing. I also suggest changes to their wardrobe to style them up. When I see a customer happy then I feel fulfilled,” Mathenge adds.

Her service includes bringing the range of clothing that she’s selected, carried in large bags, to her clients homes. But this has become more difficult as her business has expanded. With business picking up, she’s now considering getting her own stall so she can stock more clothes. Even though her paycheck does not always come on the expected day, she is able to meet all her expenses through this side business.

As luxury goods like clothes and shoes becoming more expensive for ordinary Kenyans, the second-hand clothing business is set to thrive for a long time to come.

Mary Itumbi is a journalist based in Nairobi.

Kenya’s ambitious urban farmers

“You need to cut your nails if you want to be involved in this kind of work,” Jairus, the experienced farmer and caretaker, said disapprovingly.

This was Rosa’s first attempt at planting a tree on her newly acquired farm, located in Kenya’s Rift Valley. All the farmhands’ eyes were on her as she dug and shovelled. She was sporting a fresh new French manicure that cost her Ksh 450 ($5), but she was reluctant to trim them. What a waste of money that would be!

Later that night, at her home in Nairobi, Rosa prepared for her other job. She had an early meeting the next morning but was up late, struggling to get rid of the grit beneath her nails. She knew what she had to do: reach for a nail clipper.

Farming was going to be her life from now on and she had to start looking the part if she was serious about making a success of it. The farm had come into her possession when her father heard her talking about buying some land to practise farming. He was surprised but pleased, and since he was just about to sell off a large tract of his farm, he decided to give Rosa two acres of it.

One acre of the farm in this remote area is valued at about Ksh 350 000 ($4168). The money Rosa would have invested in buying the land will instead be used in preparing the field, and paying the farm manager and the four people he would hire during the planting season to weed and harvest the crops. For her first planting season Rosa invested in beans. Her farm produce will be sold in Rift Valley and neighbouring areas.

Rosa is part of a new group of young, urban working-class Kenyans who have decided to take up farming to boost their income. This choice of career may be unusual but it’s smart and strategic: they can save the extra income they’re making now for when they retire from their formal jobs, and then take up farming full-time when they’re older.

These urban farmers are in their late twenties to mid-thirties and were born and brought up in Nairobi. They’re professionals – doctors, project managers, NGO workers, journalists and accountants. Their only previous connection to farming is the fresh produce they bought at local markets or consumed from their parents’ or grandparents’ farms (which they hardly visited because city life was much more exciting).

Urban farmers have come to realise what Kenya’s seasoned farmers have always known: farming is a green gold mine. Agriculture­­­ or food processing in Kenya accounts for about 80% of the work force and is the backbone of the country’s economy.

Farmers tend newly planted trees  Kimahuri, Kenya. (AFP)
Farmers tend newly planted trees in Kimahuri, Kenya. (AFP)

In their quest to rapidly learn about farming while holding down office jobs in the city, urban farmers are forever on their phones, carrying out ‘supervisory farming’.

“Did you manage to weed today?” “Did you buy the fertilizers?” “Is it still raining?” “How are the animals doing?” “I’ll come over this weekend and check on the progress” are conversations you’ll overhear in corridors and offices as they check in with their farm managers and caretakers.

You can easily identify an urban farmer in social circles. They are the ones who will steer the conversation to “farming is the way to go” at dinner tables, lunches and casual encounters, and then pull out their cellphones to proudly show anyone who cares a picture of their first crop.

When urban farmers are not on their phones, they’re on the internet checking out farming websites and forums – how to farm the next crop; which animals to buy next. What they lack in experience, they make up for with technological know-how.

Luckily, their experienced counterparts are usually patient and happy to help them and explain the process of farming. The market for farming products in Kenya and beyond is huge, and farmers are only too aware that they can’t meet this demand on their own. Jealousy and conflicts are rare – instead, experienced farmers encourage the youngsters and show them the ropes with the aim of greater customer satisfaction in mind.

In a country where agriculture accounts for almost 51% of the GDP, urban farmers like Rosa are playing a key role in providing employment and producing a greater variety of food in Kenya. Rosa may be new at it but she’s learning fast. She has already realised the importance of spreading the risks of various forms of farming: once she gets her profit from her next harvest, she will invest it in beekeeping. She’s only 36 years old but she’s already planning her exit from formal employment in 2016.

Mary Itumbi is a journalist based in Nairobi.