For traders at the expansive Gikomba market in Nairobi, the past five months have proved such as handful.
From freak fire incidents to the economic fallout due to the Covid-19 pandemic, their pain has been grave. However, despite the downturn they are a resilient lot. The have rebuild their businesses from the ashes and innovated to when sales have hit bottom low.
And now with the lifting of the ban on second-hand clothes imports earlier this week, there is hope that things will begin to look up for them.
More than anything else, they say, the ban had proved to be the most debilitating challenge yet, affecting an entire value chain of second-hand clothes and shoes from retail traders, hawkers, landlords whose buildings are used to store the bales, wholesalers and transporters.
In the months following the March 25 imports ban to contain spread of the coronavirus, most traders had seen their stock plummet to a few items of clothing.
For those who had yet to experience stock-outs, they still had to bear the headache of low sales after customers avoided their stalls following the flagging of the clothes as possible carriers of the virus, despite no scientific proof.
Anthony Mutuku is one such trader. Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic he usually netted at least Sh20,000 in sales each week. Now he struggles to make a quarter of that amount.
“I have been in this business for the past seven years, but the events of this year I never thought I would experience. Pushing sales has become very difficult,” he says.
Ibrahim Njogu is not doing any better. “These past few months have been a struggle because we no longer experience the kind of traffic we used to see. People no longer buy. Spotting even a single customer is a challenge. We need help,” says the trader who had to switch to suitcases when his clothes stock ran out, if only to have a steady income.
The gamble has, however, not paid off.
“I believed the suitcases would attract customers. But nothing has been forthcoming. I now have loans I am servicing in banks and saccos, which I must faithfully repay to avoid blacklisting,” says Njogu.
“Our peak seasons have been during the school holidays when most people travel upcountry. So we have been the beneficiaries of the school calendar. But now people have diverted money to other important needs,” he notes.
“Nobody wants to buy clothes and sleep hungry,” he notes.
But customer priorities are not the only change that traders are worried about. There is concern that even as second-hand clothes supply into the country steadily improves in coming months, it may take longer for their businesses to recover given the stigmatisation the sector now faces following its association with Covid-19.
The struggle is not only confined to second-hand clothes dealers. Other lines of business in the market are also feeling the heat of the cooling economy.
Those in food business report that despite Kenyans cutting down their expenditure to necessities such as food, most can buy as much food as they used to pre-Covid-19 owing to the low buying power.
“Yes they purchase from us, but they do not have enough money to buy enough food. It is not like our businesses are doing better than the rest. It is bad for everyone,” says Mary Karanja, adding that commodities like dry grains that were fast moving in the first few months after the pandemic hit no longer attract customers.
They have been forced to let their grains lie idle in stores as a result.
Josephat Maina who operates a hardware stall believes the sustainability and recovery of their businesses would not be such an uphill task if the State offered the small businesspeople bailout.
He says they have been watching and listening to news bulletins keenly and heard of billions of shilling in rescue plans, only that none is tailored for their sector.
It is such lack of support that is seeing traders like Njogu take risky financial bets only to find themselves in deeper trouble.
And it is not only the bailout policy that they fault. They find some of the measures taken by the government to contain the pandemic to be out of touch with their reality.
“How does one expect us to stay at home, maintain social distancing and sleep on an empty stomach? We have tried all we can, but nothing has been forthcoming. We now just have to come to work with the hope that nothing bad happens,” says Josephat Maina referring to their decision to from the onset of the restriction take chances with their lives and eke a living rather than follow the State’s directives and see their households starve.
For now the traders through the Mitumba Traders Association is appealing to the government to fast-track clearance of second-hands clothes.
They fault the Ministry of Trade and industrialisation for dragging its feet in developing protocols for resumption of the importation. The slow action, they say, has seen their businesses needlessly go into distress.
President Uhuru Kenyatta directed the Ministry of Health and that of trade to develop the protocols on July 6 when he ease travel restrictions in the country.
Mitumba clothes are usually fumigated from the point of origin and the protocols to be developed will include fumigation at the port of entry and the market.
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