Tag: small businesses

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.

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.