I’m all jitters and butterflies walking in downtown Nairobi. When the world tilted, everything that fell off landed here. There is no shortage of hilarious first-time-in-the-city tales of people getting lost after losing their bearings on the city streets. It gets worse whenever I visit Gikomba Market.
It’s interesting, and equally scary. To a newbie, Gikomba Market hardly lives up to her reputation as a regional economic nucleus. It is noisy, with open drainages and filled with the city’s riff raff. But, above the humdrum - enough money flows here to feed economic tentacles across East Africa.
Everything and everyone moves fast, a gazillion ethnic languages are spoken. Swahili, yes - but, often as the feeler between a buyer and a seller. A minute into a conversation, a buyer dives into native language in a bid to strike the best price!
Just find your niche, and do business. If I have to visit the market, I make sure to be there at 4am. It’s best at the crack of dawn. Since I moved back to the city towards the end of last year, I’ve been a frequent visitor here.
My contact at the market asked me to be early, if I wanted the best. I would be at her stall a few minutes past 0400hrs. That was a few weeks before Christmas Day 2022, to pick a second-hand sneaker consignment for festivity sales upcountry.
Unfortunately, she was running late. I had to wait. At her stall, there’s a tall wooden shoe shiner’s stool with a steel chain that runs into a slot in the wall. I perch on it.
I’m restless. This is part of Nairobi’s dangerous soft white underbelly. No cash in my pockets, just Ksh3,000 in my mobile money account to pay for 10 sneakers. Ever heard of thieves that can literally pick the smell of currency? It’s not hyperbole.
The market slowly stirs into life like an ancient dragon that has been asleep for a century. The loud clang of an opening stall, the waft of smoke and brewing coffee. A Dholuo greeting excitedly thrown across the market. The light is a surreal fusion of natural light creeping in, and the glare of overhead Mulika Mwizi floodlights.
Two lads walk up the lane, and stop at a closed stall directly across. They seem to be in their early 20’s, in smart khaki office wear and polished black shoes. A bike roars in from the same direction with a pillion passenger, screeches to a halt. As the passenger dismounts, the lads open their rucksacks.
For a moment, I’m terrified that a burglary may be in progress. It’s only 0407hrs.
Ah! I was wrong, and for the first time ever - I was glad to be wrong.
Out comes brushes, cloth towels and aprons. Instantly, the lads transform from chic office types into market riff raffs. The stall opens. They lads reach in, and don black rubber knee-length boots. The stall owner hauls out a bale, and spills a mountain of sneakers on the space of pavement in front of his door.
I watch first hand a rare spectacle unfold. Of the untold stories of surviving in Nairobi unfolded.
The lads are here to scrub clean the mountain of soiled used sneakers for resale - then, report for their regular 8 - 5 job in the Central Business District (CBD).
Within an hour and a half, the lads clocked 100 pairs between them. Most shoes were minimally dusty, just a dip into soapy water and a rinse worked fine.
Kumbe, to clean a pair of sneakers fetched between Ksh20 - Ksh40 per pair. It depended on the condition. That first day, simple arithmetic meant at the lowest level of Ksh20 per pair, they had earned Ksh1,000. That’s a crisp Ksh500 for each - before work. They left for the CBD, at 0630hrs.
As I walked back to the CBD to courier my parcel upcountry, I was deeply in thought.
Msee anarauka Gikomba 4am, anaosha shoes up to 7am - makes between Ksh400-500.
Reports to work at 8am. I would not be surprised if the lads had some other hustles lined up after work.
As a newbie in Nairobi, I was still working online, from home. The lads would have found it laughable.
“Dude, do you even listen to yourself speak? This is NAIROBI, man!”
The pressure to make my ‘idle hours’ useful was driving me nuts. It inspired a brilliant business idea.
My sister Natalie, 19, is waiting to join college. She’s smack in the digital revolution that’s hopelessly addicted to social media. That habit has often had her on the raspy, business end of our mother’s tongue.
Quite headstrong by nature, Natalie would make a difficult employee. I asked her to be a partner. I would raise capital and source the goods. Her role would be to figure out the retail end. She agreed - and set out to monetize her massive social media presence. She enjoys what I consider a huge following.
A day before I make resupply, Natalie generates flyers on Canva app. She then distributes the ‘New Stock Alert’ flyers on social media pages and groups. Booking starts! It’s unbelievably easy.
The Mutumba business comes with a degree of risk. A buyer may order a bale of sneakers, only to discover the bale is full of track suits - or, bedsheets. It is rare, but it happens. Luckily enough, we have not stumbled on this land mine.
We had started off with hoodies, sneakers - but, slowly gravitated towards feminine wear. Turns out, ladies are more frequent shoppers. Ten pieces grew to half-bales, then full bale. Now, I’m buying two bales of skinny ladies’ jeans.
A standard bale holds 100pcs, mixed sizes. Its wholesale price is about at Ksh22,000. That’s a modest flat fee of Ksh220 per pair. Our first attempt with ladies’ skinny jeans cooked up Ksh13,000 in profits. A single bale, sold over social media in less than 10 days!
Once she receives a bale, Natalie splits it three ways:
The best and most new, fetches the highest price at Ksh900-Ksh1000 each. Keen fashionistas eye the ‘bale opening’ date to grab the best from this category. Third-tier sellers negotiate for wholesale prices to resell, usually Ksh600 for a first-timer and Ksh500 for a repeat client.
The resellers that rely on Natalie often make prior payments with 10 pieces as minimum.
It’s virtually impossible to verify the condition of the clothes before purchase, but usually 30% easily pass off in excellent condition. Out of 100, around 30 pieces will sell off as camera copies. Sometimes, you’ll stumble into a forgotten dollar note or penny in the pockets!
The next is the ‘Middle-Class’, an acronym for a ‘Very Good’ condition. After the first lot is selected by re-sellers, this lot ends up on shop displays. We do not have a physical shop, so Natalie photographs and posts them all on her social media pages.
They move fast, with the price range starting from Ksh500 upwards. The business is heavily influenced by external factors like the buyer’s grasp of the market trends, bargaining acumen and shopping frequency. A repeat client definitely scores better prices.
A standard bale has ‘Middle-Class’ category items to about 30-35%.
Well, the ‘Regular Copy’ lot has the rejects of the bale. In Mitumba clothes, some are returned to the market with a few tears, stains or missing buttons and zippers. They consist of around 35% of each bale and fetch baseline prices - anything above the Ksh220 purchase price.
Natalie regards this lot as the ‘expense account’. The profits here cover business overheads - transport, courier, data and personal wages. She pays a friend to sell this lot in open-air markets. In rural areas, market centers have specially allocated market days on each day of the week.
NOTE: Easter 2023 marks the fourth month of operation. There will be a candid report on the progress of the Mtush business.