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Nairobi's Informal Urban Markets Threatened

The marketplace is important for any society. People buy goods they need and traders earn their daily bread.

The City of Nairobi has recently seen development of large shopping malls. Targeting the upper and middle classes, they have classy restaurants, large supermarkets and secure parking. The recent increase in road and highway construction, together with the rising vehicle oriented middle-class, is partly attributed to this increase.

In spite of the upsurge of malls, the informal economy remains part of the lives of Nairobi residents. Informal markets are found all over the city and some are popularly visited by expats and foreigners.

Kangemi Market has grown beyond its borders, Nairobi, Kenya

Fruits, vegetables and grains, clothing manufactured by leading brands, electronics, live animals for slaughter, and vehicle repairs can all be found here. These markets are particularly famous for second hand clothing, better known by many as 'mitumba.'

Informal markets emerge in unique ways. Kangemi Market came up as an overflow of a formal municipal market from 75 stalls in 1980 to over 600 in the year 2000. City Stadium Open Air Market emerged after hawkers were 'temporarily' re-settled in the mid-90s from the Central Business District. Namba Nane Market lies on a road reserve and meets the demands of the working class in the nearby Kibera neighborhood, who walk to work and back every day.

Traders in these markets tend to be very friendly and are even willing to call regular customers when they get new stock. Customers can bargain for discounts and the quality of many products is comparable to those sold in leading stores.

County government officials collect small levies on a weekly basis from each stall. The stalls are 'owned' by those who occupied them first and those who occupy them later pay rent for them. Traders all pay for night security which is taken care of by the famous Maasai.

Most informal markets have no proper sanitation and at times informal toilets have been made, which the traders pay to use. Because they also lack running water, water vendors meet the supply. They may allocate space for dumping garbage and the county government clears it occasionally.

Some Area is set aside for dumping garbage, Nairobi, Kenya

Demolitions are common, mostly by county authorities who still insist that the stalls are illegal and an eyesore. This year, part of Kangemi Market was demolished but the stalls came back up immediately.

Construction of new highways and mega shopping malls have also crippled some informal markets. Those on road reserves also face the challenge of 'space use conflict.'

The informal sector in Nairobi employs over 500,000 people directly and many more indirectly. These traders face various challenges like sanitation facilities, municipal harassment, influence of cartels, poorly constructed stalls, and limited space for expansion.

However,  the importance of growing the informal sector to achieve overall growth and self employment in a country cannot be ignored.

What can urban planners do to encourage and help the informal sector thrive? Should municipal authorities recognize these informal markets by legislation and create a more sustainable environment for them?

Credits: Images by Constant Cap. Data linked to sources.