The Nairobi enterprise of Paul and Peter

THE fire station in central Nairobi is a modest structure that occupies the corner of River Road and Tom Mboya Street. It is enclosed by a sturdy low wall, painted a two-toned red and white, both colours dusty from the soot of the city’s passenger vans and the grime kicked up on them by thousands of passers-by.

By Rahul Goswami

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Published: Fri 26 Nov 2010, 9:21 PM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 10:29 AM

On one of the sections of the fire station’s wall you will see a panel of bulletin boards, set in shallow glass-fronted cases and mounted on the wall. They tell a story, of enterprise and economy, and of two Kenyan men making a living for their families in Nairobi.

Arranged in four or five uneven rows, it was citizens’ identity cars, pinned to the lower third of the bulletin boards, which attracted my attention. There must be over 200 of the cards pinned there. Was this a lost and found bureau? Were these offenders of some kind? Were they applicants for government jobs? I had no idea and wandered across to take a closer look.

The cards were worn and scuffed, testifying to the regular commutes and possibly physical labour their owners must regularly do. Emblazoned with the Republic of Kenya national seal, the cards told of the migration that every big city thrives upon. Babra Nkirote Murithi’s card was there, she who had been born in the Meru Central district, in Makadara; Ruth Mukulu Mutsigo, born in Masinga, Machakos; Dominic Busaka, born in Kibera, Vihiga; Anna Tupe Baras, born in Ndivisi, Bungoma; Bernard Achoka, born in Kibera, Busia; and so on.

In front of the first bulletin board case, the one closest to the fire station’s main gate, stood two men, slim and neatly dressed, one wearing a beret. They held assorted papers, a clipboard, small notebooks and lists of some kind. I went over to them and asked if they knew what the boards were, who the people on the cards are and whether I could take a photograph. They looked at me carefully. One replied: “It depends what you want to take the photo for. You see, this is our business.” What sort of business is this, I asked.

At that point, introductions were needed. Their names were Peter and Paul. I introduced myself as a tourist curious about what the purpose of the boards. Peter pointed to the upper two thirds of the space on the boards, to which had been pinned a variety of posters and announcements. “Kenya Institute of Professional Studies, your sure path to success” read one which advertised certificate, diploma and “advanced courses” in information technology, community work, hospitality, business and other fields.

There were advertisements for a business college, computer training — “Ten packages for only 2,400 shillings” — an “institute of technology” which taught how to use drafting software, jobs in Canada, herbal products, a “dinner and dance nite”, and a thoroughly eclectic variety of other offers and inducements. Reading these with interest was a small knot of young women.

The two entrepreneurs had convinced Nairobi’s fire department to rent them this wall space. They had built the bulletin boards with their protective cases (sliding glass doors that are locked for the night), and turned a dull vertical space into an advertising medium for those with tiny budgets and also provided a social service for Nairobi’s labour service pool, who are constantly commuting.

“We take a monthly fee from the advertiser which depends on the size of the paper and the duration it will be up,” said Peter, “and we pay the fire department for the use of their wall. This is our business.”

What about the ID cards? “People lose their cards, and when they’re found they are brought here. Those who have lost their cards can look for them here.”

As with most urban informal businesses, the city authorities sometimes decide that such innovation — and social service — is not to be tolerated. “We’ve had our boards and cases smashed at times, and then we have to build them all over again,” said Paul. Surprised by such intolerance to home-grown initiative, I asked the two whether they received any support, monetary or otherwise, from the Nairobi City Council, the capital’s administrative authority. No, they replied, none whatsoever. In that case, I said, surely they should just leave you alone to do your business, especially since the fire department has agreed to allow the use of its wall.

With the late afternoon commuter pedestrians jostling past in both directions, we talked about South-south cooperation, about agriculture, about standards of living and social justice. Paul and Peter are in their early thirties, if my estimate is right, and both have families to support. Their monthly income ranges between 10,000 and 30,000 Kenyan shillings ($125 to $375). A good part of their monthly earnings goes towards transport and rent. “If I have to commute a lot, I may spend 100 shillings a day on travel,” said Paul. Since travel is the most inelastic part of their expense, in a low month travel alone could gobble up a quarter of the month’s income. Then there’s the children’s school fees, rent for the accommodation and cost of medicines to budget for, apart from food - Kenya’s food subsidy scheme in urban areas is neither enough nor inclusive enough for all.

“I hope you don’t mind me asking, but is getting enough food to eat at prices you can afford a problem?” I wanted to know. That morning, I’d breakfasted on ‘ugali’, which can take the shape of a dumpling or thick porridge, made from maize flour (or ground and mashed maize), and beans. “Well, let me tell you that a two kilo packet of maize now costs more than 100 shillings, which is a lot higher than what the average used to be,” said Paul. “How do people cope? Some households have to reduce the number of meals they can cook and eat. They buy less food because wage and earnings have not gone up.” And that is why, Peter emphasised, our small business is so important to us.

This small business ought to be important to the Nairobi City Council too. Paul and Peter and the fire station wall are proof that even in tough urban conditions, honest enterprise can support families with livelihood and has heart enough to provide a community service to a big city’s labour force.

Rahul Goswami is a freelance journalist based in Goa and Berlin


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