Mandera’s Jamhuri market sits in the heart of the town. And for the streets leading in and out of the market, each has a story.
Walking into the market from the town’s main bus park, you cannot miss ubiquitous men on both sides of street.
They are always here, either sipping tea or engaged in never-ending stories.
Welcome to Soko Sarafu Street.
To a stranger, the men appear to be there for leisure but on further inquiry, you will be shocked to learn that this is a forex bureau.
Bags under the seats contain cash of various currencies, including Ethiopian birr, Somalia shilling, and of course, the United States dollars.
It is here I met Bishar Mohamed, 60, probably the oldest money exchanger at this market.
Mohamed tells me that he arrived in Mandera in 1984 when he was only 25 years old and armed with Sh2000 in his pockets.
“I came to this town from my village and on realizing there was nothing else I could do, I took a seat, sat on a veranda and started the money exchanging business,” he says amid laughter.
He says the Somalia shilling was a strong currency then.
“Livestock traders (from Somalia) were my main customers. I played a role in ensuring business transactions were swift,” he says.
After several months, Mohamed was joined by several other people in the open air forex exchange that now has at least 35 dealers.
“We named this street Soko Sarafu because it is all about money exchange and every local knows where to get Kenyan, Ethiopian, Somalia or even US currencies in Mandera town,” he says.
Despite existence of commercial banks in the town, Soko Sarafu still remains popular with hundreds streaming in daily.
“Most people prefer coming here compared to banks for money exchange because we deal with any amount of currency,” revealed Mohamed.
He said high bank charges discourage many customers.
Kenya Commercial Bank (KCB) opened its doors in Mandera in 1986 followed by Equity Bank in 2009. National Bank followed in 2014 but Soko Sarafu has continued to outshine them in currency exchange.
To know and decide on the day’s exchange rate in Mandera, money traders at Soko Sarafu contact their Nairobi counterparts.
“We ask those in Nairobi to tell us how money business is doing there before we decide on the rates here every morning,” he said.
Some Mandera money dealers walk into banking halls to determine the day’s exchange rates.
“Somalia Shilling was strong before 1992 but since then no one deals in that except now in US Dollars,” says Mohamed.
Another trader, Mohamed Abdi Ali, who joined this business in 1988, says he acquired experience in money exchange when he moved to Busia.
“I went to Busia border point in 1993 just to gain experience in this business and returned to Mandera in 1995 and from this I am able to provide for my family,” says Ali.
According to Ali, most traders and locals prefer transactions at Soko Sarafu because of attractive exchange rates.
“Traders from Ethiopia come to buy household goods at this market and they have to convert their Birr to local shillings,” he says.
Many customers at the Soko Sarafu are livestock dealers from Ethiopia and since buyers shun the birr, they have to convert it to Kenyan shilling to trade and later to birr when crossing back.
On February 28, when Nation visited the market, one Ethiopia birr was being traded fro Sh2.65.
“This business is ever fluctuating but we have to keep going with times because one day you wake up and the rate is high and on another day the rate drops,” says Ali.
Despite suffering a major blow in 1996 when traders where scammed in a pyramid scheme by a Nairobi-based con artist, no theft has been reported in the open air market according to one of the money exchangers.
“I was a victim of that scam by an Asian guy in Nairobi and I have never wanted to talk about it in my life,” says Mzee Bishar Mohamed.
“We are all men and any other man interested in doing this business is welcome so long as he has capital,” he said without giving reasons why women do not trade at the market.