The slum gurus of Nairobi – can agribusiness make a difference?
Busy. That’s the first word that comes to your mind as you wind your way through Eastleigh. It is the neighbourhood of one of Africa’s oldest slums, Majengo, Easteleigh is also home to one of the biggest business centers, in Nairobi, Kenya, involving business of over 600 million dollars every month. “You can find everything in Eastleigh,” laughs Clive Wanguthi, as I wonder how to describe him – local guide, community worker, leader, activist or preacher – perhaps, all of these. Weaving his way expertly through the milling crowd, Clive cautions, “Stay ahead of me, I want to ensure that you are safe.” Indeed, after getting nearly hit by two vehicles, I take his advice and stay more cautious, which is somewhat difficult, given the riot of activity around. “I’ve got your back,” the former self-proclaimed outlaw, encourages me, as we walk through multiple distractions. “You can’t be too careful here.” A street-side store with the cheeky name of ‘Donald Trump’ blares its wares, while gold jewelry in little trays gleam at you for a song in dim lanes. Lines of steaming chapatti-beans food stalls and glowering gun-toting cops assail your senses, as Clive calls out an ‘As-salaam-alaikum’ every few seconds to an acquaintance. Everyone is busy.
Adjoining Eastleigh, the Majengo slum, is also the largest second-hand retail market in the continent. Clothes, shoes, linen, even undergarments arrive here, are sorted and segregated category-wise, before hitting the many small lanes, packed so closely with products, buyers and sellers. People move almost involuntarily amidst the surging crowd, pushcarts and headloads of goods. However, Majengo, is not just about shopping. It has also been an area vulnerable to illegal activities. One can come here to buy arms and ammunition while sex workers have been pushing their trade here for decades. In spite of how busy it is, Majengo is however extremely food insecure and also vulnerable to violence, extremism and gang activities. As we glide through, a young man stops Clive for earnest conversation. He tells us he’s looking for a job. Though bustling with business, changing tax laws and crackdown on unregistered vendors have made it more difficult for the livelihood of young people. “I do my best, to create opportunities – like these”, says Clive pointing to a youth-manned bike-wash center. “If there’s no work, youth become easy targets to be exploited or recruited into unlawful ways.”
It is business also, that brings us here, though, of a different sort. Over the past two decades, the number of malls in Eastleigh has grown meteorically from just 3 to 88 malls now. A constant influx of refugees here, has made it difficult to peg the exact population. While official estimates are around 50,000, as many as 200,000 people may be living in this 10 square kilometer area. Spearheaded by Somali business acumen, the area not only channels a huge retail market, it also is a hub for goods that travel across rural Kenya, setting the trend for the rest of the country. As we peer into a food store and eye the tinned infant cereals and imported processed foods, the shopkeeper tells us that these are more popular than traditional foods that people used to consume. These are the products that initially line the numerous godowns here before eventually setting out each day to remote areas. This is where much of the trend and taste for Kenyans takes shape.
This is where, also a connect between urban and rural agricultural value chains is seen as an entry point for development – through agribusiness. Over the past few months, Dr Michael Hauser of ICRISAT has been pacing the slums of Nairobi probing socio-economic pathways to this issue. “Instead of starting with farmers, we experiment with consumer-led value chain development. Micro-enterprises around nutritious, high-value food groups, grounded in social entrepreneurship thinking, can make a difference. We are looking at agribusiness strategies for women and men, different age groups, ethnicities, family backgrounds and socio-economic status. This can create remunerative jobs, and help recognize youth as indispensable members in Kenyan society. The true potential of youth-led agripreneurship in high-density areas, however, is yet to be established.”
ICRISAT’s work in agribusiness incubation has focused on entrepreneurs and rural communities to enhance livelihood opportunities. However, by working with community based organizations that help counter entry of youth into illegal activities, another perspective of agribusiness impact emerges. The slums of Nairobi, have not just been running large business volumes, they have also been setting trends for rural Kenya as daily truckloads of essential commodities and products make their way from here to every nook and cranny of the country. The youth in slums who hail from remote regions, engage in odd jobs here and are key influencers in vulnerable areas that are difficult for development workers to approach.
A group of young people in the local community hall canvas for money for a friend’s funeral – another of the many ways where they have rallied around for one another. With the same energy can the pushcarts and the godowns of Eastleigh, rally around for other regions changing food value chains for the country?
Substituting expensive foods with locally produced agri products may not be easy, unless it is a good enough business proposition.
“I believe it will work,” says Clive. “Look at what has happened here and how the place is a hub of activities. Show these young people the direction, and they can, in fact be the change that transforms lives of rural communities in Kenya.” However, knowing what works best requires research, what ICRISAT does. Possibilities, potential. It will however, be one long walk.
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