The Celebration and the Exclusion of Nairobi’s Start-ups

(Photo cred: Mutua Matheka)

I have been baking for as long as I can remember. At age six or seven, i recall sitting atop the kitchen counter watching my mother bake as drool lingered on the corner of my mouth. Dying to stick my not-so-clean finger and lick the bowl as tradition demands.

By the time I was 13 my baking skills were good enough that, despite only baking for family or family friends; I would receive nerve-wracking orders for birthday and Christmas cakes. I will admit, now in my twenties, I really did not take full advantage of that and build a baking empire as i should have.

But, I still bake. And sometimes when I am strapped for cash, I would ideally want to bake for sale for instance at a food market/ neighbourhood goods market somewhere in Nairobi. I am one of many young people in this city just trying to make ends meet by selling our craft. Over the course of the past year i have met a ridiculous number of young people who have started their own businesses- usually in crafts or design (clothing, jewelry, art). Mostly because they were tired of waiting at home for some employer to review their 30th or 40th application to an organization that probably does not care much for another CV coming in. They were tired of being at the mercy of employers who would rather exercise nepotism than give unknown genuinely motivated and qualified applicants a chance. With Kenya’s unemployment rate currently standing at 17.3%- the highest in the region- it is no wonder young people are desperately seeking alternatives.

In July 2015, former US president Barack Obama visited Kenya for two days. One of the key items on his agenda during the Global Entrepreneurship Summit, was the notable explosion and pertinent support of entrepreneurs. He termed entrepreneurship as the ‘spark of prosperity’ and that young people want to start businesses to improve their lives. I can definitely resonate with that. I remember being euphoric when he then committed to donate funding to Kenyan entrepreneurs for up to millions of dollars. I won’t get into where that money might have gone or what strides have been made since that July in 2015. That is a post for another day (and trust me I will revisit this).

I am proud to originate from a country with such an entrepreneurial spirit. But what good is entrepreneurship and innovation if we cannot also create affordable, safe and exciting spaces where these young start-ups can exhibit their craft? Where they can find new market and customers without having to pay exorbitant fees like 25,000Ksh ($200) for a small space that consists of a tiny table? And this is where I am going to shamelessly call out one particular goods market that crossed my screen about a week ago. The Rosslyn Riviera handmade market. I stumbled upon their poster calling for vendors for the 3 day market from 12 noon to 10pm. The charges? Starting from 25,000Ksh. The vendors wanted needed to be from diverse backgrounds in terms of their offerings; from home and garden, fashion to food. The times, great. The diversity, great. The price…. ridiculous. Yes, I am aware that events like these are not for charity; they are aimed at bringing in more foot traffic to a new mall while making some kind of profit from offering their space to vendors.

However, do the organizers ever consider that a good majority of vendors participating in these industries (particularly food and clothes) are start-ups, or very small companies possibly operating from home who do not have the capital to risk 25,000 Ksh for an event that may not even bring customers? I say this because i am speaking from a place of experience. Approximately a year back, i also decided to participate in a car-boot sale at Garden city. Turnout? Nearly zero. And at the end of a very long, exhausted day we packed up the car just as we had arrived, and went home. There were over 30 vendors who were as disappointed as i was. The marketing on the malls side was abysmal to say the least and the entire day was a waste of time and money. Except for the fact that i learnt a key lesson. Participating in these neighbourhood markets or car-boot sales is a high-stakes gamble. Would it not make more sense for the organizers to charge a reasonable fee such as 2000-4000Ksh, attract a large number of vendors, then depending on the success of this event- and as popularity grows- increase the vendor charge?

But that is just how I would personally do business (and will) when i start my own open air market.

They probably won’t read this; but the point needs to be made and people need to be called out. That we cannot claim to support entrepreneurs and their innovative spirit yet turn right around and not create inclusive, affordable spaces for them to gain exposure and create a long-lasting customer base.

I can only hope in future to spot more spaces like this, encouraging spaces that do not make me lose hope and view Nairobi as a city for the wealthy.

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