Gikomba traders count losses as county, fire threaten livelihoods
Lewis Njoka and Gerald Ithana
Over the last couple of years, Kenya’s economy has lost several millions in GDP and hundreds of full-time jobs through preventable fires in commercial places, and forced evacuations.
Indeed, each year, there are a number of places that you can always bet with certainty that fire will raze part or most of. Gikomba open air market is one of them.
Late last month, a huge inferno burnt down several structures at the cereals and mitumba section of the popular open-air market resulting in massive losses.
The traders are now counting further losses after the Nairobi Metropolitan Services (NMS) demolished their structures yesterday night, with goons taking advantage to steal stored goods.
“We arrived early in the morning as usual to open our businesses but were shocked to find an empty ground. We were not given notice for the demolition.
“They just carried the exercise without our knowledge and used a group of youth who took all our possessions,” said Nicodemus Mwabebe, the vice-chairman, Gikomba Shoe Traders Association.
“I started my business with the help of a loan and now I’ve lost everything. I’m now hopeless. I’m ready to leave Nairobi for my rural home but I don’t even have the fare home,” said Betty Ngina, one of the affected traders.
The traders termed the demolition as sabotage, but the county government and NMS say they are demolishing structures within the market to pave way for the construction of access roads.
Unfortunately, traders at the market have been incurring fire-related losses almost every year for the last 10 years.
In February, the market, popular for second-hand clothes, was on fire again resulting in loss of property and livelihoods.
Prior to that, the market was on fire in February 2019, June 2018, October 2017, June 2015, May 2014, March 2012, and September 2010, sometimes fire breaking out several times in a single year.
In peculiar Kenyan fashion, these incidents usually create an avenue for pilferage, as looters stock from any unguarded stalls, causing double tragedy to the entrepreneurs.
In a normal day, tens of thousands of Kenyans show up to trade, with makeshift stalls made of wood and iron sheets providing shelter for them to buy and sell everything from vegetables, fruits, and fish to shoes, clothes, and rugs.
Mwabebe says that to abruptly stop operations at Gikomba, a value chain which touches thousands of Kenyans, means many going home hungry.
The top of the pyramid are the few importers in Mombasa port, Nairobi industrial area, and Gikomba market.
These importers sell either the whole container or a large number of bales to wholesalers. The wholesalers, in turn, sell the bales to other big dealers or direct to small retailers who trade from informal markets in Nairobi.
At Gikomba market, there are hundreds of wholesalers ranging from small to large traders who supply the majority of bales to the approximately 30,000 retailers that trade at the market.
Every morning retailers buy approximately 1-3 bales from the wholesale stores. At their stalls, they cut the bales and unpack the different qualities of clothing by separating them into three different piles.