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Necessary evil? Inside the loathed and lonesome life of an auctioneer

Wednesday January 29 2020

Joseph Gikonyo, Garam Investments Auctioneers

Garam Investments Auctioneers Managing Director Joseph Gikonyo during the interview at his office in Westlands, Nairobi, on January 21, 2020. PHOTO | DENNIS ONSONGO | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

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The room is oppressed by an unusual silence. Inside, there are about 15 people and on this particular midmorning, Joseph Gikonyo is auctioning property. 

Sitting erect in front of his audience he asks: “Who is bidding for this property?” Without uttering a word, the traders raise their bids.

This is purely a numbers game. On the count of three, Gikonyo hits his gavel on the table. A deal has been made with the highest bidder and the property has been sold.

He goes back to his office just as he has done hundreds of time. He is the CEO Garam Investments, an auctioneering firm and has been in the business for 25 years.

Gikonyo, who is now 57, was 3- years-old and a chemistry and organic chemistry lecturer at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT) when he started yearning for a better paying job.

“I started auctioneering as a side hustle then transitioned full-time after about three years. The application process was easy and didn't require much capital to start,” he says. 


His father was livid.

“How can you walk away from a respectable career to one that falls low on the societal moral plane?” he raved.

The image of auctioneers was by then a tainted one and even at present, when the number of rogue auctioneers has reduced, it’s still a career path that’s regarded as the preserve of the mean and cold-hearted.

“Auctioneering is a business, like any other and I even encourage young people to consider pursuing the path,” he says. People do not go to school to study auctioneering but, to register as one, you ought to have shadowed a registered auctioneer for a period not less than four years, then be subjected to both oral and written tests.

“The Auctioneers Licensing Board, which is under the Judiciary, is mandated to register, renew licences, discipline errant auctioneers and administer the tests,” Gikonyo says. 

Of late, there have been many adverts placed in the local dailies announcing the planned auctions of residential properties, commercial units and vehicles. According to Gikonyo, this shows just how bad the economy is. At a personal finance level, people are also living lives they can’t afford to sustain so they take loans and are unable to pay, forcing lenders to look for auctioneers.

Gikonyo says that auctioneering can sometimes be a risky business should some of the creditors become violent. For this reason, he nowadays does not go for seizures. 

“I’ve 11 staff and among them are three auctioneers working under me. They go for seizures while I co-ordinate other activities and auction property from here,” he says.

To understand what happens in a seizure, we spent a day with two auctioneers, James and John*. 

They are aged 32 and 28 years respectively and because of the nature of their work, they requested that we alter their names for security reasons.

The first seizure, which is a distress for rent, is scheduled for 7am the next day. A tenant has accrued rent of over hundred thousand — he has not paid for over three months. 

“Before seizure, you have to notify a creditor of your intention to seize property if they don't pay the debt in seven days. After the one week notice, then you can go seize,” says James. 

Some minutes before 7am, the auctioneers receive information that the rent has been settled and should call off the seizure. 

However, there is another job for the day. This particular individual, a tenant in a commercial building, owes more than Sh5 million in rent. Auctioneers are often accompanied by at least five other men who help remove items from the clients’ premises. This client does not resist and the removal of items starts. 

“After this, we will organise for an auction for the items. Owners are welcome to make bids if they want to recover something valuable.”

John became an auctioneer at 22 years. “I was studying IT when I came across the job vacancy. I did not know much about the industry, but I sent out my CV, anyway.”

In the six years, he has learnt to stand his ground and be craftier. 

 “The one thing I have not managed to do is buy something for myself off an auction.”

Why? We ask.

“The myths and misconceptions around the business — it is said that when you buy something off an auction, it will haunt you. I know it’s absolute nonsense and I’m trying to get past it.”​