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Women-Run ‘Kadogo’ Food Stalls Ensure the Poor Are Fed in Nairobi Slums

Kenyan women operate low-cost food kiosks that fulfill an essential function: providing hot food to people too poor to buy fuel to cook their own meals. But they often struggle to make ends meet, not least because some of their clients are unable to pay.

Written by Wesley Lang’at Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes
Rebecca Jaimayo at her kadogo food stall in Nairobi's Mukuru Kwa Njenga slum. Photograph: Wesley Lang’at

NAIROBI, Kenya – With no other sources of income, Rebecca Jaimayo, mother of three, operates a “kadogo” or low-income food kiosk in Mukuru kwa Njenga, one of Nairobi’s largest slums, situated in the east of the city and stretching along the Ngong river. Her kiosk, situated beside a busy road that runs into the heart of Mukuru kwa Njenga, is a simple structure with corrugated iron walls, a dusty floor and wooden furniture.

It is 3 p.m., cold and rainy, and Jaimayo is setting up her tables outside, washing dishes and getting ready for the busiest part of her day. Most food vendors prefer to set up outside to catch passing customers, no matter what the weather.

Foot traffic is at its highest around rush hour. “This is when the customers come in, after finishing their jobs. On a good day, the work is overwhelming,” she says.

At the kiosk door, customers shield themselves from the rain while they wait for their orders. To maximize her sales potential, Jaimayo has extended a polythene sheet to shade her customers from the deluges that Kenya’s rainy season often bring.

“I make sure I get customers by any means I can. I use the money to pay rent, buy food and pay school fees for my children,” she says, taking her customers’ money.

Jaimayo is one of the many women who operate informal food stalls in the city, which have come to be an important food source for the thousands who live in Nairobi’s slums. But the margins are low, and the work isn’t easy.

“I normally wake up at 4 a.m. to travel to Muthurwa market to buy food fresh from the countryside – mostly beans, green maize, vegetables, rice, bananas and sweet potatoes. Then I cook them for our customers,” says Jaimayo.

For her customers, informal food kiosks are vital because they offer easy access to affordable food: Many families can’t afford to buy charcoal or firewood to cook for themselves.

“When you don’t have enough to buy paraffin for stoves or charcoal, buying already-cooked food means I don’t need extra money for cooking,” says Mary, one of Jaimayo’s customers.

A recent study carried out by the Akiba Mashinani Trust, an organization that, among other things, helps food vendors in slums and other unofficial settlements, revealed that 101,076 households spent 365 million shillings ($3.6 million) per month on food through informal networks. Annually, this comes to more than 4.2 billion shillings ($42.5 million) – but the value offered by the kadogo food kiosk can be measured in far more than just money.

“Women virtually hold up the last mile in the food-distribution chain in informal settlements, especially in Nairobi,” says Alexander George Owino, a consultant and financial sector specialist based in Nairobi.

According to Owino, not only do women account for two-thirds of the workforce involved in agricultural labor and on-farm food production and distribution, they also form the majority of the food-distribution chain up to the final point of sale in informal settlements.

But while the volume of food sold and income taken would suggest a solid business infrastructure, the food-kiosk community is beset by the kind of issues that more established businesses are protected against – notably, bad credit.

Food vendor Beth Mwihaki Mbugua says that sometimes she has no option but to sell meals on credit, but when her customers delay in settling their outstanding bills, she is forced to dig deep into her pockets or borrow from friends in order to sustain her business.

“When customers are desperately in need of food and have no money to buy, I have no other option. I just give it to them and ask them to bring me the money later,” she says, her voice laden with emotion. “It’s challenging, but I pity them so as not to sleep angry.”

This is the first half of a two-part report on Kenya’s kadogo food kiosks. In part 2, we will look at the dangers that affect women on the front line of low-income food distribution.

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