Category: Business

Making ends meet in Umoja

Salma is tired of running her mitumba (pre-owned) clothing stall in Umoja, Nairobi. She says business isn’t what it used to be and she spends too much time chasing the credit deals she has with her regular clients. They love the clothes, she says, but they never want to pay.

And when it rains, she has to go to the clients, through the endless traffic jam, rather than wait for them because they are reluctant to venture into the mud and sludge of the rickety market where her jua kali (informal) stall stands. And it’s been raining a lot again.

Salma’s clothes come from the huge bales offloaded at Mombasa, dispatched by Oxfam and similar charities around the world. The bales are transported from Mombasa and emptied by the mamas at the Kikomba market, near town, where Salma is a regular.

At Kikomba, most of the clothes are sold for a hundred shillings (R10) or slightly more. But then there are the numbers that the mamas know will sell at five times the 1 000 shillings that Salma’s willing to pay. These are mostly from design-house job lots. Burberry, Guess and Next are common, and lots of Italian names she doesn’t even know. Among the shoes, she sometimes finds Prada. In Nairobi, Salma is one of few sources for prêt-à-porter clothes from Paris! Her clients know it. And her clients will pay. In time.

In the afternoons, Salma usually leaves her stall in the care of three unemployed youngsters whom she pays 100 bob each (R10) for the shift. They tolerate the afternoon teens who come to the stall, try everything on, but never buy a thing.

But Salma will be back in Umoja in time to meet her regular clients as they come past in the evening. She knows her clients well, and knows who to call when she’s found what. And she’s usually right. But once she’s agreed on a bargain price with a client, she’ll often be told, “Sina pesa saa hii!” (I don’t have money now!). And this usually happens after Salma has packed the garment. So she gets tied into another credit deal that runs for a month at least. Salma says that business isn’t what it used to be.

Maisha ni ngumu!” (Life is hard!) she exclaims. “I work for my small money.”

Salma at her stall in Umoja. (Brian Rath)
Clothes for sale at an informal market in Nairobi. (Flickr/computerwhiz417)

Her stall opens at 7am. It stays open till 7pm. After packing up and paying the guy to take her stock to the store, she’ll go shopping for fresh vegetables and groceries, and get home by 8pm. She’ll cook and eat, and by 9.30pm will have fallen asleep in front of the TV. She’ll maybe wake around 2am and drag herself off to bed. And she’ll be up before 5am again.

She says she can’t carry on doing this for little return. Business is not what it used to be.

Ultimately, Salma wants to settle near the sea and she wants to learn to swim. She loves the beach and she swears she would quickly lose the extra 10kg just because of the ‘coasto’ lifestyle.

She’s Muslim, so she’s salama (at peace) among the Swahilis at the coast and she’s thought of opening a mitumba stall in Mombasa, where there are few stalls. But her ideal business would be to sell African print-couture in the upmarket coastal town of Malindi. If she could get enough money for Malindi, she would concentrate on her own designs.

She knows she could do well because every time she gets the cash to buy fabrics, and the time to guide the sewing fundi in making up the dresses, she sells them within a day, before her bigger clients have even seen them. She could make her eclectic African necklaces in Malindi too, but she just doesn’t have the time in Nairobi.

Salma has a sister living in the States, another in South Africa, and both are doing well. But her dad is old and he wants her nearby, so Salma is struggling in Kenya. Still, she enjoys her life. When the clients have paid, usually in the first week of the new month, she goes out to have fun with her late-twenties and 30-something friends. They’re a mixed bunch, Muslims and Christians alike, a few with kids but most not. One or two of them are married. They usually go clubbing and might dance to house or R&B at some place in the hip suburb of Westlands. Salma prefers drinking spirits to beer –  Napoleon brandy and Sprite.

Even if Salma drinks and doesn’t ever wear the austere black abaya (popularly, the ‘bui bui’) or veil when out, she’s an otherwise devoted Muslim: She’s up every morning before five in her ‘bui-bui’ and a thick red scarf that she wraps around her head in the style of a Tuareg nomad. She puts her red Maasai blanket on the floor as her prayer mat and she reads passages from Qur’an for an hour, daily before daybreak.

Salma tells me that during the holy month of Ramadan, she was at the head-grinding blender from 4am so she could make her fresh vegetable ‘smoothie’ and eat a chapatti before the sun was out. She cooks many dishes but admits that she lacks the patience to make good chapattis. And she laughs a bit when relating how the noise of the blender drove her neighbours nuts before sunrise. It was only the Somali sisters in the flat upstairs who understood.

On the advent of Eid ul Adha in October last year, she cooked the customary pilau rice and goat meat as a special treat for a few invited friends. It was an honour to be invited but I could see she had battled to provide. With no alcohol present, she bought Coke and Sprite, warm, from the shop across the dusty road. But afterwards, tired and stressed, she admitted that “a Guinness would be great”.

Salma is tired of running her mitumba stall in Umoja, just outside Nairobi.  “It’s time to leave this place,” she says. Business is not what it used to be.

Brian Rath was born and raised in Cape Town. He now lives and writes in Kenya, and has a novel due to be published shortly. 

Funerals the biggest parties in Ghana

The chance to show off your best black clothes, eat spicy giblet kyinkyinga kebabs, enjoy unlimited free drinks and perhaps meet the love of your life – welcome to funerals, Ghana style.

Such is the love of funerals that they take up most of the weekend, and some Ghanaians want to reduce the working week to make more time for them.

“Funerals used to take up Saturday and Sunday, but now I’d say 90% of churches bury bodies on Friday as well, so people are having to take time off work to go to the service,” said Gabriel Tetteh, an online funeral planner. “With the pressure of having to fit in a visit to the service while working on Friday, and all weekend taken up, when you go to work on Monday you feel the pain.”

President Yahya Jammeh has just made the Gambia the first country to introduce a four-day working week, decreeing that the extra time should be used to devote more time to prayers, social activities and agriculture. Now some are hoping this will spread to Ghana. “The truth is that over here, public-sector workers have always found ways to have four-day weeks if they want,” wrote Elizabeth Ohene, a former government minister in Ghana.

Funerals offer the biggest parties and best socialising in Ghana, and are attended by extremely distant relatives or anyone who has known the deceased (and sometimes those who haven’t). Towns and cities are dotted with signs by the roadside advertising important funerals to passers-by, to attract the maximum number of mourners.

Ghana is also famous for its elaborate coffins, with families choosing to bury loved ones in caskets shaped as beer bottles, aeroplanes or giant shoes.

An employee of the Tchadio workshop prepares coffins representing a plane and animals in the Teshie area of Accra. (AFP)
Cultural Producer Lisa Warrener inspects a coffin carved in the shape of a frilled lizard by the Paa Joe Carpentry workshop in Ghana and commissioned for Festival Melbourne in 2006. (AFP)

“We estimate that the cost of funerals in Ghana often runs into thousands of dollars,” said David Dorey from MicroEnsure, a UK-based company that provides life insurance in Ghana. “There is obviously this cultural thing that seems to have spiralled slightly out of control.”

Some Ghanaians have complained that the fixation of funerals represents a prioritisation of the dead over the living.

“We Ghanaians, we love funerals. If you are sick, no one has money to pay your medical bills. If you need money for school fees, no one can help you. But if you die, everyone is running to give money for your funeral – a lot of money! We love funerals too much,” said Seth Akpalu, who lives in the capital, Accra.

“In Ghana, people do spend more on the dead than the living,” said Tetteh. “There are some people, when a relative is living, they wouldn’t mind. But when the person dies, they put a lot of money into it, otherwise other people will be there insulting them.”

Asked why they enjoy attending funerals, young Ghanaians said it was mainly for the social aspects, and the refreshments. “Free Fanta and small chops,” tweeted Deborah Vanessah, a singer and model. “Sexy black clothes,” tweeted another.

“Funerals are grounds to meet new partners if you are unmarried. I have met a girl at a funeral on two occasions,” said Samuel Kofi Nartey, a law student in Accra. “You know, in Ghana our funerals are parties. You get to dance with a person or sit around with them and talk about stuff and one thing leads to another.”

Afua Hirsch for the Guardian Africa Network

A bad shoe day in Maputo

The generosity to be found at busy intersections on the streets of Mozambique’s capital can be puzzling to first-time visitors.

My Canadian-based partner, Imelda, was hardly a first-time tourist — she grew up in Maputo. But she was still caught off guard when a couple of shoe-shine boys crouched down and set to work on her best stilettos while we were waiting for a robot to change.

For a moment she thought she was lucky — perhaps it was a new local custom, a way of offering compliments of the season? But when she looked down she was shocked.

Her clean white shoes had been covered in black-tan shoe polish. Before she could recover, the leader of the shoe shine brigade stood up with his waxy brush and demanded: “100 Meticais, menina [sister].”

In a fit of rage typical of a backhome diasporian, Imelda waved down a municipal police officer. Climbing off his motorbike the burly officer burst out laughing when he heard Imelda’s complaint. When he calmed down, he addressed the chief waxer: “Do Santos, sort out your customer!”

Then, leaving no doubt about whose side he was on, he told the boy: “At least today you can afford sardhinhas [tinned fish].” He started laughing again as he climbed back on his bike and rode off. Imelda was left fuming about corrupt police and — more immediately — about how she was going to address the meeting we were on our way to with any dignity in her smeary black-brown heels.

We were going to Maputo’s Alumni Scholars Club where Imelda was to give a speech describing her experiences as a young Maputo girl who had moved to Canada where she was doing an MBA at a top university.

Clearly the guest speaker needed to look her best and live up to the “returning banking alumni” image.

Her nails and make-up were immaculate and when she got dressed that morning she had settled on a white Giorgio Armani suit — complete with matching stilettos. She cursed the shoe polishers. “I am not gonna throw you a single dime. Just look at what you’ve done to my shoes!”

But the polish boys simply threatened to apply another layer of liquid black wax. The leader spoke: “If you don’t give us 50 Meticais we will confiscate your shoes. Do you know how much wax costs?” While he presented his ultimatum, the other boys tried to grab Imelda’s shoes off her feet. The situation was getting crazier and eventually I threw a 100 Meticais note (about R40) towards the boys, grabbed a sobbing Imelda and rushed for the nearest taxi.

Maputo’s streets have become synonymous with the unwelcome attentions of shoe-shiners. Waiting for a robot to change at a busy intersection makes pedestrians easy targets. Most of the time the boys don’t even use genuine shoe polish, but a dense industrial liquid that often corrodes shoes. Most disturbingly they don’t care about the colour of the reluctant customers’ shoes. They apply whatever they happen to have.

Having cleaned your shoes, it is common to threaten to seize them unless the ransom is paid. As we hurriedly looked for replacement white shoes in Maputo’s boutiques, Imelda could not come to terms with the change in her shoes — from crisp white to greasy black. People like Imelda — returning diasporians and tourists — are the most likely victims of the shoeshine boys.

We locals have adopted a more cautious approach to robot crossings in our seaside capital. 100 Meticais for a compulsory shoe polish? That’s a good day’s business in Maputo.

Skand Felicio is a pharmacist in Maputo. This post was first published in the M&G newspaper. 

Chama: The economic model that’s all the rage in Kenya

The greying man in his early 50s wore an expensive brown leather jacket and a cream cowboy hat that slouched on his head. He looked at me sideways and asked: “Why are you so keen on hanging out with us?”

Everyone at the table sat up, and five pairs of probing eyes turned in my direction. The booming speakers in the background hummed in a monotonous drone as I cleared my throat.

“I’d like to join your group,” I managed as I returned the old man’s stare, “because we are like-minded.”

It might seem like I was trying to join an exclusive golf club, but all I wanted was to join their chama – the economic empowerment train that is all the rage here in Kenya.

Chama is Swahili for a group of people – anywhere between two and more than 100 – with a common interest in coming together. They can be classified into a few categories: self-help groups, merry-go-rounds, or investment groups in which members pay a certain amount of money every week or month. The money is then used by the group to invest, give members loans or pay them monthly dividends from their micro-savings.

To join a chama, each of which has its own protocols, you have to be introduced by a member. The “board” will then vet you before you are eligible to join.

It was an old friend, with whom I was once in the same chama, who recently tried to convince me to join his new group. During the introductory meeting I was advised that I would be the one who would settle the bills.

I was buying rounds of beer as questions were fired off by the board members.

“How old are you?”

“What do you do?”

“Why should we trust you?”

I made my pitch and my friend backed me up. After the initial scepticism, things were looking good.

In my former chama each of the six members paid R100 every fortnight. At the end of the month, one member went home with R1 200 he had collected from the group. This group was a merry-go-round affair but it broke up because of serial pay defaulters. It’s the reason why new members of any chama always have to be thoroughly vetted: membership is built on mutual trust and understanding.

When our merry-go-round group collapsed my friend held on to a few members from the former group and injected new blood into it. They transformed the old chama into an investment group. The monthly payments shot up to R400, more members were recruited and a constitution with rules and regulations was created. The new chama bought a nightclub and was planning to build a gas station on a plot it owned.

The modern-day chamas have come a long way. They began as groups our mothers formed as away to collect funds to improve our homes. Most people dismissed them as an excuse for our mothers to gossip and drink tea, their favourite brew.

It was in the 1990s – when there was high inflation, savings were wiped out, jobs were lost and the prices of basics like food and rent quadrupled – that these tea parties started to gain some respect. After all, it was money from the chamas that put food on the table and got rent and school fees paid.

The basic premise of our mothers’ chamas was this: never wholly trust banks because they will give you the proverbial umbrella when the sun shines and take it back when it rains.

But a chama is not just an informal bank, it’s family.

If there is a job opening, members will tell other members about it. If you are sick, bereaved or getting married, they will be with you through times good or bad. If you need professional guidance, the wealth of experience of people in different careers helps – and the advice is free.

The evolved, modern chama also has many diff erent versions. There’s a girl I know whose chama exists simply for bonding with friends. The five members pay R30 each and meet at the weekend to gossip and catch up. The host uses the R150 raised to pay for food and refreshments.

Then there is a chama for single professional ladies. Its single purpose is to help pay for the members’ wedding day, if and when it comes.

I even know a guy in a beer chama. He and his four mates used to have one for the road every day after work. Then they did some maths and decided they were spending too much money. Now each member contributes R100 a week, which has reduced their beer intake but increased their savings; every month one member walks home with R1 600.

The most famous investment chama is the Trans-Century group, which was established by 27 leading Kenyan professionals and investors.

The membership fee was between R50 000 and R100 000 – and 11 years later the infrastructure investment company is worth hundreds of millions of rands.

After making my successful pitch to the board, I sat admiring the expansive nightclub my soon-to-be “family” had bought. I was given the rules and regulations.

As a new member I would first have to pay a one-off fee of R8 000 and timely monthly contributions of R400. If I defaulted I would be fined the equivalent of three months’ contributions.

Meetings would be held twice a month and I had to pay R50 for the purchase of refreshments.

Coming to chama meetings with a woman would get me fined a goat or cash in kind, while being drunk and disorderly in front of members was a serious offence. And I would not be able to touch any of my contribution money for the next five years unless it was an emergency situation, in which case I would get a soft loan.

I sat mulling over whether to join, wondering whether it wouldn’t be simpler to join a mutual fund. Then again, joining a chama is not just about the money – it’s about friends.

Munene Kilongi is a freelance writer and videographer based in Nairobi. This post was published in the M&G newspaper.