Nairobi at a crossroads as hawkers take over streets, overrun shops

Sunday March 19 2017

A street battle this month pitting hawkers against shop owners in Eastleigh, Nairobi, over limited selling space. Business has been sluggish in this estate that is one of the biggest markets for textiles and electronics. PHOTO | EVANS HABIL |  NMG

A street battle this month pitting hawkers against shop owners in Eastleigh, Nairobi, over limited selling space. Business has been sluggish in this estate that is one of the biggest markets for textiles and electronics. PHOTO | EVANS HABIL | NMG 

By HUDHEIFA ADEN
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Street hawkers are once again curtailing free movement of people and goods in many urban centres.

One of the worst hit estates in Nairobi is Eastleigh, where formal traders are counting losses of up to Sh10 billion over the past three years when informal dealers descended on First and Second Avenue sections, according to their association. A court later ordered the hawkers out.

At the heart of the matter, currently, is the race for Nairobi’s gubernatorial seat. Eastleigh, which is part of Kamukunji Constituency, largely voted for Mr Evans Kidero (ODM) in 2013.

The governor is said to be close to local business leaders, while the local MP is in aspirant Peter Kenneth’s camp (Jubilee), and is said to support the hawkers.

A section of county leaders also side with the hawkers. This camp addressed hawkers recently on their “right” to sell their wares in Eastleigh, accusing the governor of neglecting the downtrodden. 

Governor Kidero faces an uphill task of decongesting the city by getting hawkers out of the streets to allow for a good business environment, while trying not to anger informal traders who form a large part of city voters.

On this front, Mr Kidero maintains that his mandate is to make Nairobi the dream city that its residents desire. 

“People tend to develop a sense of laxity in enforcing city by-laws that prevent disruption of formal business and cause obstruction, especially during election years. I am here to create order. Cities all over the world are recognised by their sense of order, otherwise Nairobi would not be recognised as a city,” Mr Kidero told the Sunday Nation.

He added that Eastleigh is the best example of his success in taming the menace. Mid last year, Mr Kidero fired the director of inspectorate department, Mr Hillary Wambugu, over hawking and collapse of order in parts of the city.

And earlier this month, a magistrate at Milimani Commercial Court set aside a court order allowing hawkers to sell their products in Eastleigh’s First and Second Avenue sections. The magistrate said those conducting such business in the area were violating city planning laws.

According to City Hall, Eastleigh generates close to 30 per cent of Nairobi county’s revenue. 

But lately, “traders from within the country and from Uganda, Tanzania and Congo have found it difficult to access the estate, and to get into the malls, because hawkers block the pathways and loading zones. Some traders have been fearful of their security,” said Mr Ibrahim Hussein, chairman of Eastleigh Business District Association.

When the situation got out of hand, the business community closed the over 50 shopping centres within Eastleigh, leading to violent exchanges between hawkers and shop owners. 

Business has been unusual in this centre that is known as one of the biggest markets for textiles, electronics and food in Kenya. The centre also hosts many commercial banks that are keen on tapping the revenues generated.

Before removal of the hawkers, they had taken over most streets and even set up stalls in the middle of some roads.

General Waruinge and First Avenue roads that lead to the business centre — constructed to the tune of Sh4 billion — were overrun by hawkers. Eastleigh became an eyesore, with dirt and plastic wrappers strewn all over.

Last year, a task force headed by Nairobi Deputy Governor Jonathan Mueke settled on removing street vendors as they sought alternative places for them. 

In the city centre, too, there have been many crackdowns on traders displaying their wares on pavements, inconveniencing pedestrians and blocking shop entrances. 

These endless battles bring to the fore the many challenges facing both the county government and the street vendors.