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Kenya in Motion 2000-2020

Marie-Aude Fouéré
Marie-Emmanuelle Pommerolle
Christian Thibon

Chapter 5

Low-Cost Business in Kenya from the City to the Countryside

Sylvain Racaud
Traduction de Roxane Heidrich et Nathan Mwangi Kariuki

Texte intégral

1“Everybody knows now, everybody is a trader now, and that’s the problem now,” said George in April 2015 from his rudimentary stall in a Nyeri commercial street, where he sells ballet flats made in China on an almost daily basis. He represents the average response of the urban and rural populations to the obstacles of the Kenyan economy. Indeed, the formal economy is unable to absorb in a structured way the increasing share of labour force. Therefore, the sector referred to as informal is the main alternative, offering employment to more than nine out of ten businessmen and merchants (World Bank 2016). The National Bureau of Statistics estimated that, in 2014, the informal sector represented 82.7% of employment excluding the agricultural sector (ibid.). The informal sector is considered to be a shock-absorber and a crisis regulator (Charmes 1992; Hugon 2003) but George stresses that there are constraints because, according to him, the market is saturated with vendors and mainly imported goods.

2Everyone is a witness to the arrival of massive amounts of low-cost goods, especially ballet flats, plastic sandals, fashion accessories, clothes, etc., which have flooded the urban commercial spaces and the rural markets. China is Kenya’s primary importer with its share of total imports that grew from 12% to 23% between 2012 and 2014 (Sanghi & Johnson 2016) and that remained at 23% in 2017.1 The price of commodities imported from China fell by 10% between 2012 and 2014 (Sanghi & Johnson 2016). Among these products, cheap junk (“pacotille” in French) ranks high. It is available, accessible, and adapted to the limited purchasing power and capital; thus, the exchange and the circulation of these goods extend the large commercial outlets up to the rural areas. In East Africa, this commercial route crosses the one of the second-hand clothing, another relatively inexpensive category of merchandise. The second-hand clothing trade sector is older and is a common driving force of informal sales.

3In the context of these new combinations, how does the unprecedented circulation of vendors and cheap merchandise structure the trade route between the city and the countryside, between the formal and the informal sector, and between agriculture and commerce? How do specific regional dynamics develop? The trade route is the combination of all the actors and places that are connected by long-term commercial relations. Who are the actors engaged in these exchanges and what are their relations? What are the places where these movements take place and how are they structured? This project focuses on a specific segment of the transnational route of Chinese junk as well as its local cross-linkages with the trade route of second-hand clothing. Most of the work focuses on the visible displays of the trade route of products made in China, or in other terms, the cities with their global trade routes (Bertoncello & Bredeloup 2007; 2009) that do not reach the rural areas (Pliez 2009). What happens to the hidden rural side at the opposite of the urban scenery? This work examines the geographic configurations of the route between Kisumu and its hinterland in Western Kenya and between Nyeri and the West side of Mount Kenya, and integrates their connections with the East-African trading posts.

4The suggested hypothesis is that the development of the junk trade route generates an “in-between” resource space (Pliez 2007) located midway between the city and the countryside, between the formal and the informal sector. This space is more or less a vehicle for new opportunities and more or less suitable for those actors pursuing their goals in this in-between setting. The “in-between” is a paradoxical interstitial space which is not only between two objects but also within those objects. We can see it, for example, in the urban aspects of the countryside as well as the rural elements of the city (Brient 2007; Racaud 2006). More than a complex combination of city and countryside elements (Bonerandi et al. 2003), the in-between is a resource space between the formal and informal economy, a contradictory landscape with porous borders. Since it is both between and within objects, at times it also questions their very nature, as in the case of the formal economy when it lives from the informal. Therefore, this work focuses on the most flexible expressions, on an order of things marked by uncertainty and precariousness, and on the everyday life of the majority of the population while examining examples of self-employed businesspeople, people involved in the cycle of temporary markets, and those who sell in the streets.

5The empirical data were collected during several field missions carried out in Kenya in 2015 and 2016. The data were drawn from interviews (35) mainly conducted with either sedentary or mobile vendors. Three group interviews were conducted and three life stories were recorded as well. Documenting precarious workers’ testimony, also known for their economic vulnerability and their often non-recognised status, can of course present some obstacles (Steck 2006). An effort has been made to overcome them by adopting a comprehensive approach consisting in capturing the actors’ practices and actions in their specific context.

6In order to examine the regional dynamics of the trade route and the resource space of the in-between setting, this paper is organised into three sections. The first deals with the organisation of commercial spaces, the second with the accessibility of commercial networks rooted in the city and in the countryside, and the third concerns mobility and commercial linkages.

1. Commercial Spaces

Nyeri and Kisumu: Two Densely Populated Agricultural Inland Cities

7Nyeri, at the foot of Mount Kenya, is located 150 kilometres from Nairobi, while Kisumu, at the edge of Lake Victoria, is located 340 kilometres from Nairobi. The cities of Nyeri and Kisumu, with 119,200 and 383,000 inhabitants respectively in 2009 (KNBS 2015), are administrative and service centres and venues of social and economic interactions that play a bridging role between the city and the countryside, notably through agricultural exchanges (Rondinelli 1988). Nyeri Municipality and Kisumu City fall within an East African urbanisation marked by the densification of the urban structure (Calas 2007). These cities are witnessing increasing growth rates; 1.12% per year for Nyeri and 1.04% per year for Kisumu over the 1999–2009 decade. They are the hubs of their agricultural inland which are characterised by high rural population densities. They exceed 300 inhabitants per square kilometre on the Mount Kenya hillside (with an average of 280 inhabitants per square kilometre in Nyeri County, GROK, 2013) and count an average of 440 inhabitants per square kilometre for the old Nyanza Province. There is, therefore, a growing tension between the limited extension of the land and the size of the population.

8The main part of the rural population is engaged in small-scale agricultural activities that strongly depend on the climate; it combines food crops (mainly corn and beans) with commercial crops. To the West of Mount Kenya, depending on the type of terracing, producers plant tea and coffee on the hillsides and foothills, whereas the sugar cane is the main commercial crop in the West. The commercial crops of the Central region are better connected to the market. “The economic activity of the city of Nyeri is primarily linked to agriculture” (Mitullah et al. 2006, 76) and the area produces lots of food cash crops (potatoes, market gardening products) for the cities, primarily Nairobi. In the West, the agricultural market opportunities pose a problem and the agricultural relay function for Kisumu is more reduced, notably because of the bad condition of the rural communication infrastructure and the situation in the periphery.

9With the neo-liberalisation of the economies (markets opening up, private actors increasing their influence, etc.), their intermediation functions have been renewed (Mainet & Édouard 2013) and East African small- and medium-sized cities have become fully-fledged actors in the structuring of transnational trade routes (Mainet & Racaud 2015). The transformation of the urban economic fabric no longer follows the pace of the population growth; for instance, these cities have not become industrial hubs. The urban economic landscape both feeds into and takes from the spatial and economic “in-between.” A strong “lasting interdependence between the city and hinterland” (Mitullah et al. 2006, 76) exists, often pegged to the informal activities. In Kenya, the informal sector employs on average 53% of the urban workforce with the most significant rate being registered in Kisumu (61%) (KNBS 2015). The urban commercial spaces and the rural markets are the privileged places of the low-cost business and the relationships between the city and the countryside and the formal and the informal sectors.

The Organisation of Commercial Spaces

10Shopping districts and urban and rural markets are places of multiple intersections. They fulfil economic functions by allowing exchanges between client and merchant, city and countryside, and formal and informal economies—whether they are in the city or in the countryside. They also foster social relationships because not only the merchandise is exchanged. Information and rumours circulate, friendships are tied and broken, etc. Just like most rural markets, the regular markets of Nyeri County are mirrors to their hinterland because local agricultural productions are found there. The health of these markets depends on the health of the local economy, primarily the agricultural one. Tea, the main Kenyan export, is the most important crop on the South-Western hillside of Mount Kenya. The tea industry, like the coffee production, is structured around cooperatives that circumvent rural markets. Thus, the latter do not play any role in the gathering and the redistribution of local products. The markets of Monyu, Kiamariga, and also Kiaruhiu do not stand out as the dynamic regular markets that can be found, for example, on the Western slope of Mount Elgon, on the slopes of Uporoto in South-West Tanzania, or even in Western Cameroon. The infrastructure financed by the county notwithstanding, market days are dull: they lack the fervour of a rural market day that is supposed to be the highlight of rural life (Chaléard 1996). As a consequence, these markets play a limited role in the distribution of imported products due to the limited number of merchants that are present. Nobody comes from the cities to sell their merchandise because the rural tea trade scene is not a very flourishing one. On the contrary, in Endarasha, despite the absence of infrastructures, the agriculture based on food crops meant for urban markets is very active and attracts merchants from Nairobi or even from Mombasa. The rural economy, far from being rich, allows nevertheless for numerous commercial exchanges. The market attracts local customers and mobile vendors coming from Nyeri or Mweiga that sell low-cost goods. The development of the junk trade route also includes the goods that are grown in the fields.

11Kisumu and Nyeri’s commercial infrastructure is composed by a few small supermarkets, many boutiques in the main streets of the Central Business Districts (CBD), some daily markets, and countless makeshift vendor stalls. The latter occupy the streets with the most significant flows of passers-by, which correspond to the routes used by CBD employees heading to the bus stations. These routes are also traversed by peddlers, the most precarious type of street vendors. In Kisumu, four streets around Jomo Kenyatta Ground (a vast park between the CBD and the bus stations) are cluttered on both sides with countless stalls of various second-hand items or Chinese junk. The two sides of Otieno Oyo Street, approximately ten metres away, are also occupied by a multitude of merchants and their products. On the main street Oginga Obinda, the street vendors, stand at the entrance of and around stores and coexist with them, while in the streets of Ang’awa, Jomo Kenyatta Highway, and Ojino Okew, the right to sell is almost exclusively granted to a few hundred street vendors. The points of sale have various forms, from a display made of a cut-out bag placed on the ground, to the covered table called kibanda. Street commerce has thus various shapes, and it is hard to the observer to make distinctions within the commercial landscape of these extended markets. In any case, whether it is street vending or a market, under-equipment is the norm. The pictures below demonstrate the contradictions of street vending between some very reduced stockpile and equipment placed right next to numerous bags of second-hand items stacked indoors in an open hangar.

Photo 1. Diversity of sales points, JK Highway and Ojinjo Okew St

Photo 1. Diversity of sales points, JK Highway and Ojinjo Okew St

Sylvain Racaud, 2016.

12Despite their differences, these two types of commerce operate in spaces that were never intended for these activities; therefore, according to the legislative frameworks, they are informal and are not subject to an annual license. However, the same authorities who do not recognise their formal status, do grant them a temporary license valid for one day, averaging 30 shillings per day. For the local authorities, the criterion of “sell[ing] in a space that is not intended for that purpose” is a major criterion of the definition of informal commerce. According to the head of the Urban Planning Department of Kisumu City County, these activities “are informal in the sense that they are carried out in a space not designated for that.” It is noteworthy that Kisumu’s last urban plan for dates back to 1975. Therefore, at the highest level of the political rhetoric, the Kenya Vision 2030 plan articulates that “the informal sector must be supported in ways that will raise productivity and distribution and increase jobs” “to provide them [informal sector] with permanent and serviced facilities, training and access to credit and markets” (GROK 2007, 10, 14). The institutional framework presents contradictions within its different levels because the non-recognition of informal vendors by Kisumu City County, by Nyeri County, or by Nairobi City County challenges two laws: the Urban Areas and Cities Act of 2011 and the Micro and Small Enterprise Act of 2012. The latter states that “enterprise’ means an undertaking or a business concern whether formal or informal engaged in production of goods or provision of services” (NCLR 2012, 7). The daily management of the informal economy resides within the national political and legislative framework and the local politics. Being placed in this in-between means, for the informal sector, being kept in its precariousness; it is also an open door to abuses such as the ongoing corruption of the officers in charge of ensuing adherence to rulings or even the political exploitation at the highest levels. For example, the Economic Strategy Action Plan of the National Rainbow Coalition political alliance, which won the 2002 presidential elections, recognised that 88% of promised jobs allegedly came from small informal business enterprises (Kamunyori 1999, 13). This temporary legitimacy, albeit renewed daily, contributes to the blurriness of the definition of informal. The common understanding of the latter refers to economic activities operating outside of state regulation whose boundaries with the formal sector are blurred (Lindel 2010).

13The regulation of low-cost commerce, characterised by a strong informal component, constitutes a permanent fluctuation of powers in the local political arena. The latter is a volatile ensemble of multiple actors and various sectors (public/private, economic/political, authorities/civil society, formal/informal) with porous borders (Blundo 2002). Despite its official “informal” status, the world of street vendors is indeed organised. This bottom-up regulation is generated in the institutional in-between because this activity, although considered informal, is regulated by numerous groups registered with the Ministry of Gender, Children, and Social Development. This framework comes with requirements (daily meetings, periodic elections, record-keeping, etc.) and offers services such as savings, loans, and social assistance. These groups, called self-help groups, typically count between ten and fifty members. In Kisumu there are about forty of them and in Oginga Odinga Street, no less than eight. The most precarious vendors, i.e. those who have very limited capital, are less often members of collective organisations for a lack of trust or of capital to be converted into contributions. The price of trust and the risk of losing the little that has been accumulated curb the collective engagement. Nevertheless, the groups are an asset to the power relations between the local authorities and their leaders are key contacts whose favour is persistently pursued if not even bought. It is not uncommon for kiosks to be set aside for specific leaders when commercial spaces are created (Bus Park in Kisumu in 2003). These groups can be in competition among themselves (e.g. KITES and KISTA in Kisumu) and often, there are leadership problems (e.g. KASVIT in Kisumu), if not collusions between politicians and the mafia. The Apindi back lane in Kisumu is a commercial road with several dozen small shops. This project was financed in 2004 by a Constituency Development Fund generously funded by the local member of parliament at the time. The space is managed by a committee headed by two individuals that we met in a nice vehicle with tinted windows, where they were negotiating the sale of a store to a Somali merchant for the modest sum of 350,000 shillings. “We are the ones who negotiate with the County government on their behalf [vendors],” they say, in particular on the allocation and the transfer of ownership of shops. Low-cost business is an economic resource for both visible and less visible actors and it is also an electoral asset. This way, for example, businessman E. Anayo, elected Member of the County Assembly in 2013, in Kisumu, was able to reclaim to a certain extent the investment made by co-financing dozens of kiosks on a section of the JK Highway. For politicians, street vendors represent either an electoral resource or terrible grabbers of public spaces—a relationship that changes with the electoral calendar.

2. Access to Commercial Networks Rooted in the City and the Countryside

Traders, Capital Accumulation, and Access to Commerce

14Low-cost business is flourishing because there are numerous business contenders and the number is growing. The oldest vendors have been practicing for about fifteen years but the majority of them for less than ten years. This influx of merchants also reflects that of the goods as Kenyan imports coming from China (in terms of value) increased to about 1500% from 2000 to 2010 (Patroba 2012) and about 60% between 2010 and 2017. The trade of imported products is the main activity to the majority of young people. Showing us her market stall, Joyce, a street vendor in Kisumu, confesses that “this is where we report immediately after school”; we may rephrase “this is where we work even after completing school, since formal jobs are hard to get.” There is no typical profile of a merchant and trying to sort out typologies seems far-fetched and inappropriate insofar as these actors are flexible in nature and likely to move from one category to another from one day to the next. Men, women, young people either done with their secondary studies or in the process of doing so, public service retirees, former employees enticed by the adventure of entrepreneurship, poor, less poor, a few rich people—in short, a wide range of individuals –engage in this world of low-cost business. It is possible to differentiate between those who chose to do this kind of a job; either those unsatisfied or perhaps fed up by their salaries in the formal/informal, agricultural, or service industry and the majority who had no other choice other than engaging in small business.

15The itineraries in stages are typical for a number of those vendors who have previously experienced the life of earning salaries. In the merchant’s experience, beginning with the second-hand clothing trade is a classic; access to the business of new products is already more ambitious and vendors are flexible: they adapt not only their range of products according to the seasons, but also based on opportunities and setbacks. On the other hand, street trading also known as hawking and street vending are preliminary attempts at achieving a stationery selling spot in a daily market or a shop or even selling in periodic markets. The duration of these stages depends on the success of the business venture. The circumstances of people who buy and resell goods are more or less evolving; some of them succeed at accumulating capital, others do not make any progress from the initial stage, which is often misery, a hardship experience. The lack of adequate financial capital, together with inadequate educational and social capital, limits the chances of success while the most successful merchants are those who can rely on a combination of numerous social, professional, and political networks (Walther 2015).

16The starting capital is typically generated through several ways: donations (which is rare), loans (somewhat common), or accumulated capital from previous activities (in most common cases); combinations of the above is not common. Capital can be raised from savings from one or several jobs which can be combined with a loan or a donation, both of which are quite often obtained from parents or a spouse. Despite broad variations, the starting capital is typically less than 15,000 shillings and it is not uncommon for some begin with less than 5,000 shillings, sometimes even less than 1,000 shillings. Those who start with more than 20,000, perhaps even 50,000 shillings, have, for example, been able to obtain a bank loan or a loan from a mutual-aid group. Public service retirees may begin with tens of thousands shillings of capital.

17The main access to the trade route is through another vendor or through some form of apprenticeship. In both cases, access occurs through one person with whom the new vendor has a social relationship, which is quite often a family member, village, or community acquaintance. The would-be businessmen receive guidance throughout their first steps and are often accompanied in the commercial neighbourhood to be recommended to suppliers and become familiar with the urban scene, especially if the latter is a merchant who buys goods in a big city like Nairobi. Vendors remember this experience even after several years, like Job, who still remembers the date, ten years ago, and to be specific 2 February 2005, when for the first time he obtained his supplies in Nyeri together with his merchant friend who just like him had just set up a stall in Endarasha (3,000 residents in 2009). Cooperation can defy the market competition rules. In the biweekly Kiamariga market, a small city situated at an altitude of 1,800 m on the Western hillside of Mount Kenya, Florence, a merchant of clothing, layettes, plastic sandals, and small household accessories, was accompanied to Nyeri for her first procurement by her direct competitor, whose adjacent display is totally similar. She was accompanied to Nyeri by a merchant from the same market. The following photo demonstrates the proximity of the two stalls, with Florence’s stall located just behind the one in the foreground. There are forms of collaborations that go beyond the simple rules of competition whereby merchants try to gain for themselves the better share of the market. Other merchants were instead guided towards Kamukunji, Nairobi’s large trading post for Chinese junk.

Photo 2. Stall, Kiamariga Market

Photo 2. Stall, Kiamariga Market

Sylvain Racaud, 2015.

18It is not surprising that most merchants were formerly shop assistants in a family business or businesses owned in the community or perhaps a friend’s business. This system links us back to the practice of placing children under apprenticeship and to the group solidarity that can be found in many African communities. This process allows beginners to gain experience, contacts, and sometimes capital. For example, despite his young age, George, a street vendor in Nyeri, got his bachelor in Information and Technology in 2015. He has been working as street trader for more than five years. He began selling on part time after his classes, while still in Form 4. George used to sell his merchandise at a lower price compared to others: “As I started my final year in High school, having lived for so long without any source of income, I tried part time business under the inspiration of my friend, he’s a very good friend.” It is not surprising to see high school students getting goods on credit or small capitals from close acquaintances and becoming vendors during the school holidays. Getting the experience and accessing capital are usually the fruit of close relationships, work, and solidarity. The city expands the number of possible combinations between genealogical links and extra-familial relations (Agier 1981), while the penetration of the merchant route into the countries, via the markets, also offers new possibilities of forming relationships and social networks.

Activity System Based on City-Countryside Synergies

19Vendors from the countryside and numerous vendors from medium-sized cities combine the city and the country into their activity system. Synergies derived from these combinations that result in the mobility and circulation of resources (capital, goods in kind). The activity system is understood as the “dynamic and structured set of interacting activities implemented by a given corporate entity that mobilises the resources available in a given social and ecological environment” (Gasselin et al. 2014, 106). The permanent or periodic sale is thus often associated with agricultural work within a given household or within the personal schedule of an individual, leading to flexible arrangements that are based on agricultural and market calendars. Alfred, a small 60-year-old woman, follows the itinerary of the dynamic periodic markets for the better part of the week (Endarasha on Fridays, Nairutia on Saturdays, Mweiga on Thursdays) to sell ballet flats, plastic sandals, and slippers, cultivating her field during the rest of the week. The daily market vendors of Othaya, a small town of 5,200 residents (KNBS 2015) about 15 kilometres south of Nyeri, never arrive before ten o’clock in the morning because most are busy in the fields working from dawn. The cultivated areas in Nyeri County are moderate in size, often an acre, where corn, beans, etc., are grown, i.e. merchantable food supplemented by tea or coffee, and livestock often consisting of only one a cow under zero grazing. In the western parts of Kenya, the areas may be larger, about two acres for each household, but access to the market is more reduced. Whether it is in the western parts of Kenya or in Nyeri County, merchant-farmers believe that agriculture does not yield sufficient revenues and that low-cost business is a cheap complementary activity. This business is strongly linked to the seasons because clients themselves derive their income in part or in full from agriculture. The harvest period is therefore the most prosperous period for merchants as money is more abundant.

20Engaging in trading of cheap imported goods represents an alternative to those in rural areas who cannot engage in in agriculture due to some limitations, it could also be a means of purchasing land and investing in agriculture. Regular merchants have invested in commercial food crops destined for the urban market, like potatoes and cabbage that are sold in Nyeri, or melon sold in Kisumu. Rosemary, wholesaler of second-hand clothes who moves between Nairobi and Kisumu, no longer relies on her employment but instead uses farm workers on her land in the County of Siaya. The relative absence of merchant-farmers on their plots and investments can alter the production systems. The latter become more intensive in terms of inputs, and labour. Whether it is in Nyeri or Kisumu, vendors have been able to purchase plots in their villages thanks to the revenue generated from their business. Paul was able to buy a plot in the village after about five years; Henry, after fleeing Rift Valley, was able to build his own house in Nyeri; and Fredrick was able to extend the size of his inherited land by purchasing more pieces. On the other hand, nobody would envisage their retirement outside of their home villages, except perhaps the young people, who are yet to think about it, together with those who have made investments in the city. The business in town makes it possible to build a house on the inherited or purchased plot; the objective is to secure resources for the future. Investments in the village rather depend on the success of the economic activities in the city as well as the setbacks, which is particularly true for the street vendors whose work is not recognised by the authorities. This affects life in the village. This is the case, for example, when all or part of the stock is lost, sometimes even as a consequence of planned destruction by authorities as was the case during the fire evacuation of Oile Market in September 2014 in Kisumu. On the other side, for those whose origin is rural areas but living in the city, getting cash or resources such as food is a necessary in order to afford life in the city, particularly for street vendors with limited financial capital like most of those specialising in Chinese junk along Oginga Odinga Road in Kisumu.

Photo 3. Street vendors, Oginga Odinga Street, Kisumu

Photo 3. Street vendors, Oginga Odinga Street, Kisumu

Sylvain Racaud, 2016.

21Vendors are local vehicles of global products distribution, the grassroots links in the chains of the transnational route. The majority of vendors in medium-sized or small towns or in rural markets are of rural origin. Whether they are sedentary or mobile, permanent or seasonal, they often have one foot in the farm and the other in the market. They integrate agriculture and urban business in their activity system, which leads to specific flows of capital and goods.

3. Mobility and Network Logic

Within East African Villages, Cities, and Trading Posts

22The expansion of the trade route, driver of economic opportunities, has led to unprecedented levels of mobility between the countryside, secondary cities, and metropoles. The movement of individuals and objects is functional to the business and takes place on several scales according to the available capital: it’s all about stocking up and selling. The street vendors who follow the cycle of periodic markets can sell for up to seven days per week, like Job, a very mobile merchant. On Mondays he stocks up in Nyeri (or Nairobi, if the capital allows him) and sells in Mweiga on Tuesdays, a trading centre on Wednesdays, Mweiga on Thursdays, Endarasha on Fridays, Nairutia on Saturdays, and Kiawara on Sundays. This schedule changes based on agricultural seasons because crops differ in type and harvest time depending on the agro-ecological zones. Job’s areas of mobility is within Nyeri County, even if, at times, he’s able to get his supplies from Nairobi. The vendors who work in the periodic rural markets often have moderate capital, which constrains their radius of action or movement. Endarasha’s periodic market becomes lively from eleven o’clock, once most of the merchants have set up their stalls. A large number of them comes from Nyeri, some from Mweiga (3,500 residents, KNBS, 2015), and others from Endarasha. Out of more than one hundred merchants, two thirds sell second-hand clothing, a dozen sell imported junk, and only three sell new clothes; the selection of available goods is an indicator of the local purchasing power.

Photo 4. Endarasha’s periodic market

Photo 4. Endarasha’s periodic market

Sylvain Racaud, May 2015.

23When it comes to the supply of goods, the movement of goods and people from the cities to the countryside intertwines with those from the cities to the countryside or from the secondary cities to the metropoles. Limited capital leads to less movements because the reduced stock that one can purchase must often be replenished. In Nyeri County, the lowest number of trips is one per month (which is the case mostly for those who sell between one and three days per week) and the highest frequency is two trips per week to the source of supply and back. The location of the latter depends on the point of sale and the volume of the supply. Among the least dynamic markets is the South-Western side of Mount Kenya, where the economy is based on the production of tea, Karatina (8,500 residents, KNBS 2009) and Nyeri are the main trading posts. The markets located on the North-Nairobi axis from Kenya towards Ethiopia and the markets located northwest of Nyeri, where the business of commercial food crops generates connections with Nairobi, have easier cash exchanges. Gikomba and Kamukumji are the major trading posts for second-hand clothing and Chinese junk respectively in Kenya. These popular marketplaces are also major supply centres for Nyeri vendors. Most vendors, whether mobile or sedentary, rural or urban, engaging in the business of low cost products went less frequently to Nyeri Town and even less in Nairobi. These more recent commercial exchanges have created unprecedented fluxes, mobility areas with variable geometry, volatile “merchant territories” (Grégoire 2002) that entirely depend on the interrelations between agriculture and other economic opportunities.

24On the shores of Lake Victoria, the development of the low-cost trading route has generated connections and commercial hubs on several levels. In Kisumu, Kibuye is a daily market whose peak is on Sundays since the wholesalers from Nairobi, Nakuru and Mombasa, come to redistribute their stocks of second hand clothes. Bus park, the main bus station in Kisumu, is the main regional trading post for the junk. It is here where wholesalers, retailers, and street vendors coexist or interact. The place attracts merchants who operate in the cities and towns within the region. Furthermore, a significant part of the Kisumu supply of goods made in China is ensured by numerous wholesalers and retailers who get their supplies from Kampala at a similar rate as those who get their supplies from Nairobi, meaning two to four times per month. Despite its landlocked location, Kampala is an East-African hub for imported goods. The Ugandan capital offers attractive conditions for businessmen from East Africa. This is also the case for a few merchants from the South-West of Tanzania, more than 1,300 kilometres away, who also obtain their supplies there, leaving aside Dar es Salaam. The goods that can be found in the Owino market and in the “golden triangle” (Calas 1998, 177), mainly on William Street, Kikuubo Street, and Nakivubo Street, arrive through the port of Mombasa and passes through Nairobi. However, the favourable exchange rates, the low taxes, and the less than transparent negotiations at the border between Uganda and Kenya lead to the fact that the price per unit of a sandal made in China is more cheaper in Kampala than in Nairobi. The development of the Kisumu-Kampala trade route took place at the same time when traders were forming some groups or associations, for example the Kampala Friends, created in March 2016, which has 33 members. One of the members, who had been doing his business in Kampala for 15 years, now prefers Mwanza, a North-Western Tanzanian metropolis; the East-African competition is keen and the network is labile.

25With its goods, actors, facilitated methods of access, and places, the low-cost commerce has been generating alternative trade routes, the expansion of which results in unprecedented connections between the city and countryside, between medium-sized cities and metropoles, and across borders. The movement of products, capital, the layout of activities between business and agriculture, as well as the unprecedented movements are a result of new economic opportunities, which are resource spaces of the “in-between” that showcase the specific territorial dynamics integrating Western Kenyan territories, villages, and grassroots actors, with global commercial networks. These territorial dynamics represent the way “inconspicuous areas of globalisation” (Pliez & Choplin 2015) play an active role in the system of global networks.

Commercial Links Integrated into the Network Logics

26Besides the physical flow of goods, the organisation of a low-cost trade route also occurs through intangible commercial relationships. The mobility of traders exchanges is unprecedented for some of the vendors in rural markets or in the commercial areas of small towns (e.g. Othaya); by stocking up at their outlets, these merchants get used to the windows and opportunities of globalisation where they maintain more or less ongoing relationships with their suppliers. Professional merchant networks also develop. Partial credit or the granting of an advance on goods are common. They allow customers’ attractions and also create the conditions for faster or easier exchanges. Maintaining long-term relationships allows for the development of trust, which can be leveraged during hard times (Berrou & Gondard-Delcroix 2011). A supplier can “help” his client with a one-time advance on goods. Close relationships also facilitate negotiations. However, vendors are not bound to their suppliers but it is rather “the goods that lead.” In most cases suppliers will call their clients to promote new goods or even to take on new potential clients who would cunningly change suppliers. Furthermore, intangible connections are facilitated by the use of smart phones equipped with the WhatsApp application and by the use of phone payments with the Mpesa system, widely used since its release in Kenya in 2007.

27Due to influence of the city, the rural mobile street vendors and the urban youth from small cities sell new products that are on fashion: they are medium of fashion trends, which they actually wear themselves. The “items constitute an essential part of socialising contexts” (Kaufmann 1997, 111) and the junk contributes to the emergence of a class of small entrepreneurs of rural origin, actors that play a key role in connecting places and societies of the world. In rural communities that are opening up more and more, this relationship shaping the demand for globalised products, which represent the interconnections between the global socio-cultural factors and economic system. When people’s relationship to space changes, their relationship to time changes too. The easy access to non-durable, if not short-lived goods, the giving rise to a sense of urgency or excitement of the gain, and unprecedented movements, all contribute to shaping the identities of the “in-between”—a social shifter (Durham 2000) in this city-country space connected to the global. These identities, in part built through cyclical movements and increasingly individual trajectories, question the status of the territory, a collectively owned space created over time and a conveyer of identities (Charlery de la Masselière 2013). This itinerant trade therefore contributes to the unprecedented time-space relationships that shapes the city and the countryside and their complementary attributes within a resource space that is integrated on various levels in the systems of the network.

28The commercial links that emerge within the low-cost route combine themselves with the daily local sociability and tie themselves around an identity soaked in entrepreneurship. The sector of low-cost merchandise is not a selective one: products are available and accessible and their sale allows for the establishment of group unity that combine social and economic systems. In the rural and urban commercial spaces, some merchants feel that what makes most sense is the social relationship rather than the trading function of this “togetherness.” A group of saleswomen in Othaya admitted that the profits are small, yet business allows them to get away from the farms, out of the home, the village, and to be in town, together, and share a life between the farms and the stall on the side of the street. At the very least, this commercial activity allows to escape, if not the condition, the very image of the farmer; this is how old Wilson explains it while standing in front of his pile of old second-hand clothing spread over a piece of sheet at the Endarasha market. He proudly proclaims: “I’m a farmer and I’m a business man.” The old man only sells twice per week, and, judging by the state of his stock, his prospects to expand it are uncertain. The examples of self-made men like Victor Maina or Davis Mukuha, founders of their respective supermarket chains that were initially small inherited shops, steer people’s imagination in an East-African country with a neoliberal economy where entrepreneurship is strongly valued. The entrepreneurial spirit promoted through national programmes (e.g. Kenya Vision 2030) and anchored as a positive value in Kenyan society, can be found in those freelance or mobile entrepreneurs and equally as easily in the neo-liberal systems at the city level especially when it comes to urban planning practices (Morange 2013). From the field to the city, from the individual to the state, the development of the trade route in Kenya allows us to detect several geographical effects of globalisation.

Conclusion: Between the Places and the “Mobile Spaces”2 of low-Cost Business

  • 2 Rétaillé (2005).

29Leaving aside any geographic interpretation, this chapter revolved around the question of how the movement of vendors and merchandise creates a resource space that is generated by the relationships between city/country, formal/informal and agriculture/business. The space of the analysed route extends from the country to the cities. It is integrated within the systems of a porous network that combines social, professional, and political links. From the country to medium-sized cities, the majority of the actors along the route of low-cost business sells basic equipment and combines within their activity systems agricultural revenues and the retail sale of small items. Access to this business is possible with limited capitals and through social friends. The professional experience is marked by subsequent steps. Private actors, through their movements and intangible commercial connections, are the grassroots building blocks of the route that connects in an magnified way the biggest centres. The itinerant or sedentary street commerce, with its numerous and flexible forms and permeable borders, is a privileged expression of the “in-between” setting that emerges between formal and informal activities.

30The “in-between” resource space demonstrates the existing geographic tension between a physical place on the one hand (a localised, named, represented, and engaged point in space) and on the other hand, a mobile space that is a relative and shifting physical reality. The commercial routes are parcels of recognised (toponymy), materialised (points of sale), and collectively owned space that have become so often after conflicts between vendors and authorities (but also between vendors themselves). Conflicts and competition over the use of space express the conflictual nature of space, which “always represents the challenge and becomes the main stake in struggles and actions that have a specific objective” (Lefebvre 1974, 471). Low-cost business associates (relatively) fixed devices with the fluidity of vendors who follow the waves of clients mainly when they leave work. In Kisumu, Nyeri, Nairobi, etc., every day at the end of the afternoon, a uninterrupted flow of potential customers populates the space between the CBD and the bus stations.

Photo 5. JK Highway Road in Kisumu (above) and Gakere Road in Nyeri (below)

Photo 5. JK Highway Road in Kisumu (above) and Gakere Road in Nyeri (below)

Racaud, 2015 and 2016.

31This form of resource space reminds of the “ambulantism,” an opportunistic and stealthy style of selling that shapes the geography of the village in a blurry and fluid way (Monnet 2006). This human tide is synonymous with economic opportunities for the vendors that have abandoned their daily points of sales in favour of the crowded and self-appropriated sidewalks. The space, therefore, temporarily changes its nature just like the CBD employee who becomes a client. Movement is the driving force of this change: traffic zones move, urban areas become merchant spaces, the form of the space changes, and so does the nature of the object in movement (Retaillé 2005). In conclusion, the geography of the trade route of low-cost merchandise, through its unprecedented mobility, its unstable merchant spaces, its grassroots precarious private actors, and its unpredictable fluctuations between formal and informal, can be interpreted as the product of a precarious context affecting the largest part of the rural and urban Kenyan society and also as the product of the local connections to the global.

I express my sincere gratitude to Nathan Mwangi Kariuki for the English editing.


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Table des illustrations

Titre Photo 1. Diversity of sales points, JK Highway and Ojinjo Okew St
Crédits Sylvain Racaud, 2016.
Fichier image/png, 2,0M
Titre Photo 2. Stall, Kiamariga Market
Fichier image/jpeg, 2,1M
Titre Photo 3. Street vendors, Oginga Odinga Street, Kisumu
Crédits Sylvain Racaud, 2016.
Fichier image/jpeg, 2,1M
Titre Photo 4. Endarasha’s periodic market
Crédits Sylvain Racaud, May 2015.
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Titre Photo 5. JK Highway Road in Kisumu (above) and Gakere Road in Nyeri (below)
Crédits Racaud, 2015 and 2016.
Fichier image/png, 1,7M


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