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‘Riskier When the Lights Are Out’: The Sharp End of the ‘Kadogo’ Trade

In part 2 of our report on the low-income food sellers of Nairobi, we examine the threats facing the women who provide this vital link in the food-security chain – and what the future may hold for them.

Written by Wesley Lang’at Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes
Beth Mwihaki Mbugua sets up her “kadogo” food stall in Nairobi’s Mukuru kwa Njenga slum. Photograph: Wesley Lang’at

NAIROBI, Kenya – Informal food markets may be hugely important in curbing food insecurity in Kenya’s slums and informal settlements, but the food traders who operate them face enormous challenges.

“The most difficult thing is that you’re working in an area where security isn’t guaranteed,” says Beth Mwihaki Mbugua, a kiosk operator in Nairobi’s Mukuru kwa Njenga slum. “I wake up very early in the morning, and at 4 a.m. walk alone to my stall through the darkness. It’s riskier when the lights are out; you’re exposed to threats of rape.”

Like most people working in the food trade, informal vendors rely on the rush hour to keep their businesses afloat, capturing hungry workers walking home after a long shift. However, many finish as late as 10 p.m., forcing kiosk owners like Lina to make a difficult choice – should they put themselves in danger in order to catch more customers on their way home?

“Most of us here are forced to work to the schedule of our customers. Very early in the morning, and late in the evening: That’s when we sell most,” says Lina. “But these hours are very dangerous for us. Going back into the night is not safe.”

Another less tangible but still important threat is the lack of hygiene in such an environment. Kiosk operators often have to set out their pitch beside piles of refuse or open sewers. This isn’t just a threat to their health – it can also affect their bottom line, especially during the rainy season when the streets are awash with garbage. It’s during these times that customers tend to shy away, and the women are forced to clear away stagnant water near their kiosks in order to have a proper cooking and serving environment that will appeal to passers-by.

In an effort to improve essential services in informal settlements, the Nairobi County Annual Development Plan (CADP) has put forward a plan to upgrade food-service delivery standards and expand and develop new markets, including creative designs to provide inclusive trading spaces for small-scale traders.

Under the plan, Nairobi City County is seeking to amend regulations to improve the city’s business environment, with particular focus on small businesses and informal kiosks. Nairobi governor Mike Sonko believes “this move will advance all informal markets and also the sustainability of micro and small enterprises in Nairobi.”

But no matter how sweeping and effective these measures are, they will come too late for some – like Mbugua, who was robbed on the way from her stall to the market at 5 a.m. to buy her supplies. “Normally we go to the market in groups, but that day I was a little bit late and I was following my friends, a few yards behind them. Three young men grabbed me and forced me to give them all the money I had,” she says.

Michael Muthama, one of the few men to run a “kadogo” food business in Mukuru kwa Njenga, confirms that violent robberies are common, with the slums’ adolescent males the main culprits. But he is pragmatic about such hazards: “Some of these youths don’t have jobs and maybe they’ve walked the whole day without food, so what do you expect? They will rob from you what little you have.”

It’s hard to imagine Mbugua and her counterparts being so relaxed about the high stakes women stall-holders face in maintaining their livelihood and providing a hot meal to those who live in Nairobi’s slums.

This is the second half of a two-part report on Kenya’s kadogo food kiosks. In part 1, we look at the essential function “kadogo” kiosks serve: providing hot food to people too poor to buy fuel to cook their own meals.

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