Nairobi Hawkers
Photo: Baraka Mwau

Forget relocation, here is a better way to help Nairobi hawkers

The leadership of Nairobi County has revealed plans to relocate Nairobi hawkers. This looks like to be another band aid solution that will postpone problems for the future.

The only way to solve a problem is to solve the underlying problem causing the problem. This issue of Nairobi hawkers is no different. Going by the conversation of Kenyans, hawkers are perceived as vermin and not people. They must be cleared off the streets! During the Global Entrepreneurship Summit, they were removed from the city center with little concern for their livelihoods. Keeping up appearances was more important.

But, I guess, that is what we should expect when we rely on elites and children of the elites to solve the problem of poverty. How many countries do you know that give precedence to real pro-poor policies to achieve economic goals?

According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), hawking constitutes between 40% to 80% of work done in Nairobi. This kind of work is a low hanging fruit to those whom ‘equal opportunity’ remains a phrase. No surprise that hawking in Nairobi, no, in Kenya, is dominated by women. These women, and men, are lowly educated, have little in the way of real skill or experience to run a business and are burdened by family responsibility.

Their hawking ventures, as they are, cannot grow into bigger businesses. One anecdote here or there does not change the reality of this truth. The businesses are focused on reproducing the markup of yesterday instead of capturing new markets tomorrow. In any case, the hawking ventures are too small and not productive enough to grow. Whatever small margin they make is not enough to allow for use at home and for reinvestment in the business.

Even if you had a Nairobi hawker who had gone to school, up to tertiary level, it would still be difficult. Even if he or she had business skills, such as bookkeeping, and was departed from the norm among entrepreneurs in Kenya with his or her preference for strategy rather than tactic in running a business the tide would not turn.

How do you succeed in an environment of extortion, cannibalization and exposure to the elements? I just realized that this is the environment in which small and medium-sized enterprises in Kenya operate in, save for the fact that they have premises to shield from sun and rain.

How to help Nairobi hawkers

The conversation should not start at relocation. In fact, if things are done right, they will be the ones to decide on location of their businesses. As it is, they are only following the foot traffic as do the shopping malls outnumbering street lights on Thika Road. Maybe if zoning laws were taken seriously we wouldn’t have these problems in Nairobi. But that’s another story.

One country that has done good to create an inclusive economy for micro-enterprises is Singapore. Singapore is the only country in the tropics that has things together. That doesn’t mean Nairobi County officials need a field trip over there.

The first thing that was done to help hawkers was registering them, as Nairobi County claims it will do, and conducting research about them. Kenyan needs to value research. How will relocation work if we do not know how many Nairobi hawkers actually exist? How many enter and exit the field over a period of time? What products are they selling? And so on and so forth.

Along with this, there needs to be conversation with the hawkers themselves. Why limit talking to them only as a  General Election ad-hoc voter-base? If you help them they will always vote for you. It is established that most of them go into hawking because they have no alternatives. Would they continue along that line if alternatives to starting a business came their way?

Here’s how to grow their businesses

Those who have starting and running a business as their preference can then be helped scale beyond the drudgery of day-to-day hawking  – read our article on entrepreneurship culture

Contrary to what most of us in Kenya think, the biggest obstacle between entrepreneur and a successful enterprise is business skills. Not funding. Nairobi County has a responsibility to come up with a handful of business development centers for the entire field of small businesses; micro, small and medium enterprises. If Nairobi hawkers are to evolve into something better, they need cheap access to business development services.

Only after this can there be talk of funding micro-enterprises. The Government of Kenya already has a number of public sources of funding for Kenyan entrepreneurs. Nairobi hawkers with information, on this, skill and organization among themselves would be better able to successfully apply for these funds.


Meanwhile, if Nairobians really despise hawkers they will desist buying from hawkers. That is the only way to get rid of them using band aid solutions. Banning them, from the CBD, in one of the most corrupt countries in Africa will only give leverage to rogue officials to turn screws on extortion.

And I bet you that the new market they are relocated to will end up like every other market in Nairobi. Filthy, disorganized and crumbling despite the fees plus bribes paid by traders.