Nairobi's millionaire hawkers.


Go to any African city and sooner or later you will find yourself fighting off the ubiquitous curio sellers as they thrust their wares into your face. But what is below the surface of this business? How much money is there in it?

Six years ago Zack Magomere was going from one Nairobi office block to another selling, on credit, imported second-hand clothes to clerks and executives. He made between Shs15,000 and Shs25,000 per month. It was his first employment since leaving high school, the money was good since it did not involve backbreaking work, and he enjoyed it -- but collecting payments for his goods was a different matter altogether.

At times, particularly at the end of the month, he found himself barred from offices by burly guards acting on instructions from his debtors who could not pay him and dreaded confronting him.

One day in 1992, he became so fed up that, accosting a smartly suited executive in the streets, he demanded the Shs9,000 the man owed him. The man said he did not have the money so, in full public view, Mr Magomere stripped him to his underpants.

This nearly cost him his life. Taking him for a thief, a crowd decided to dispense instant, Nairobi-mob 'justice' by garlanding him with a burning tyre. He managed to escape this and being charged in court with violent robbery, which carries the death penalty.

He decided enough was enough and quit. But he is a born entrepreneur and soon found himself in Nairobi's bustling Blue market. From a small shack, he began to sell handicrafts, T-shirts, Africana necklaces, ear-rings, antique artefacts, batiks, leather belts and bags, Kisii soapstone items, wood carvings, Maasai and Turkana belts, walking sticks, copperware and so forth.

Business has been good. Tourists flock to his street corner collapsable kiosk and he no longer has to hassle for Shs25,000. He has plenty of cash and employs two assistants whom he pays Shs7,000 each. His stock is worth about Shs500,000 at any one time. Producing Shs200,000 to replenish his stock is a simple business of opening his cheque book and writing out the figure. "If I have to pay in cash, then I just walk into the bank and withdraw the money to pay the supplier," he explains, exuding confidence. "I serve about 40 customers a week selling small items ranging in value from Shs100 to Shs500. When business is good, especially during the tourist season, you can make about Shs140,000 a week."

Mr Magomere is sitting pretty, but really he is small fry...

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