The nomad’s way of doing business: A guide to Somali commerceBy ABDI LATIF DAHIR in Nairobi | Monday, October 11 2010 at 15:32
You step off the brightly-coloured matatus (minibuses); music is blaring and the touts are shouting for more passengers. Immediately you alight, a blast of hot air flashes across your face, then a wave of choking dust quickly replaces it. While you try to comprehend it all, drivers shout from their windows and horns compete for attention.
Amidst it all, you grasp the syllables of an incomprehensible language and the unpleasant chorus of hawkers trading their wares. You are in Eastleigh, the commercial hub of Nairobi and the heartbeat of Somali entrepreneurship.
Here, paradox reigns supreme. Stores selling Islamic literature and recordings of the Quran sit right next to shops stocked pile high with khat, a mild stimulant much loved by Somali men. Motorcycles ferrying goods and people are fitted with ambulance sirens in order to manoeuvre through the grid-locked traffic (here, all the rules you learnt in driving school are broken; it is probably the only place in Kenya you can drive on the right side of the road).
All this pandemonium, however, belies the real story of Eastleigh; that of bustling business and cut-throat competition. Capitalism may not have had quite a grip here; small businesses exist amicably alongside big establishments. They even compete!
One of the biggest enterprises that are thriving in Eastleigh is the restaurants. Somalis love their food; it stems from a long tradition of contact with Arabs and Italians, both of whom uphold the institution of food in high esteem. After many hours of hard work (shops in Eastleigh open as early as 6am), many businesses close for lunch and raid the countless restaurants that dot the landscape of Eastleigh.
You would be forgiven to announce that this neighbourhood has the most restaurants per square kilometre in Kenya. Wardheer Restaurant and Snacks, Big Mack Two, Chess Café, Al-Amin Restaurant, Gulf Palace Restaurant and the list of eateries is endless.
“One of the key investments in Eastleigh is the restaurant business,” says Paul Kioko, who is the manager of Kilimanjaro Food Court, popularly known as KFC.
“We receive customers from all over Africa, Dubai and Europe, therefore, we need to be able to invest wisely and make our customers feel at home,” he added.
KFC sits at the epicentre of business and has become a magnet for Somali businessmen, expatriates and Kenyans looking for alternative gastronomy. The food here features an all-rounded menu that includes Somali cuisines, African dishes and an array of fast foods.
Have you ever heard of camel pizza? It is found here. There is also the influence of Arab and Italian cuisine where menus read dishes like Spaghetti Firitato and Makaroni Al Forno.
“The day I ate in Eastleigh,” says Selma, a Moroccan student in Kenya, who recently visited the area, “I felt like I was in a Moroccan wedding. The portions were huge, the meat was so tender and the spicing was perfect.”
This success story is being replicated across town. KFC has just opened another branch in Nairobi’s Upper Hill area while other restaurants such as Al-Yusra and City Star have opened up in the Central Business District (CBD).
Source of wealth
Speculations remain rife over the source of wealth that fuels the economy in Eastleigh. To answer that, one has to understand the intricacies of the tightly-knit ethno-economic networks that characterise how Somalis do business and relate with each other. You can call it informal socialism, or even better, an ethnic cooperative.
Most business ventures are funded by a consortium of distant relatives; a middle-class of cousins, aunts, uncles and in-laws. For more than two decades, they have perfected the philosophy of pooling resources together for a greater venture. Most of the times, it has worked, and the times it did not, you really don’t have to bother about it. Somehow they spring back and get going from where they left it.
Remittances from the diaspora have also provided the adrenalin rush that has characterised the bustle and quick-paced tempo of Somali businesses. These transfers of money are facilitated by a unique system known as Hawala. Companies such as Dahabshiil and Kaah Express are at the forefront of these services. The word express attached to the company’s names bear significance. Money sent from the US is paid to the recipient instantaneously, say in Nairobi.
“Hawalas are very important when discussing Somali economics,” says Dahir Sheikh Ahmed, a member of the Eastleigh Business Community.
“They are very effective and at some points, they are even able to deliver money to war-torn places like Somalia, where NGOs and UN agencies fail to reach.”
Yet, on many occasions, money-transfer companies have been come under scrutiny with accusations of money laundering, tax evasion and supporting terrorist activities. The biggest manifestation of this phenomenon came after the 9/11 attacks, when the US forcibly shut down the operations of Al-Barakat, which was the biggest Somalia-based remittance company at the time.
While the older generation haggle over the prices of their commodities, children attend Quran schools known as Dugsi in Somali. Dugsis are another prevalent facet of the Somali society and life in Eastleigh. In fact, they are the alternative curriculum of early childhood education for Somali children.
According to an article published by Bildhaan, a Somali studies journal; “Observers have noted that children who attend Quranic schools tend to pick up learning at the formal school much faster.”
Over the years, schools have opened up in Eastleigh to serve the education needs of the younger generation. It has, however, been hard abandoning the role of the Dugsi. Teachers have responded to this by combining both systems of education and coming up with an integrated one. Under this system, the first lesson of the morning is say, Quran, followed by science or mathematics and then a lesson in Arabic studies.
Macallin Hussein, a Quran teacher at a madrassa in Nairobi, says that this system of education is very limited to few estates, but might increase in the long run. “The spread of madrassas encourage this system of education,” Hussein says. “So that as students learn Quran, they also do not fall back on formal education.”
Buildings in Eastleigh come up like paper castles; so you would like to think. A mall here, a building there, a block of apartments to the right and more unfinished buildings everywhere you look. Here, real estate is a gem, quite literally at times. Rent rates have spiked within a short period. Land developers are sweating as they try to meet the seemingly insatiable demands of an unending list of tenants. It is an architects’ Mecca, a bazaar for contractors; its like a permanent parking lot for construction equipment.
Tucked along the corners of many streets in the neighbourhood are booking offices for different bus companies. You can count as many as 10 different companies such as Maslah, Ocean Bus Services, Gateway, Dayah, e-coach and Bilal. They link Eastleigh and its residents with different parts of the country such as Mombasa, Garissa and to refugee camps such as Kakuma and Dadaab. Airline companies such as African Airways Express, Jubba Airlines and Daallo Airlines offer transport to different parts of the world.
These planes carry more than passengers and ordinary cargo. They also carry khat, a cash cow for many Somali businessmen. Everyday at 3pm, pick-up trucks driving at gravity defying speed, make a ceremonious entry into Eastleigh carrying sacks of khat. Some of the cargo is offloaded and distributed locally while another batch is prepared, packaged and sent to the airport to be exported to the Middle East, Somalia and the UK. Some estimates state that up to $800,000 worth of the mild stimulant is exported daily by Somali businessmen.
“Khat was an important business venture during the 80s and 90s,” says Ahmed. “However, there is a tendency that when Somali traders make money out of it, they no longer want to work in it.”
The dislike of this business endeavour is related to the fact that khat is considered haram or prohibited by Islam.
Globalisation is causing Eastleigh to embrace diversity of businesses and division of labour. If you have a keen eye, you will notice something interesting: Every street in Eastleigh has at least one pharmacy, but that is on average.
Kipanga Athumani Street, which leads to the residential quarters of Eastleigh, has nine pharmacies, some right next to each other; call it health consciousness or blatant paranoia. I leave it to you. Did I mention cosmetic shops?
If you weren’t quite satisfied with the menus of the restaurants in Eastleigh, take a walk on the Second Avenue. On offer are Somali cookies, dates and halwa, a sweet form of pastry, that is made with nuts. Everyday at 4pm, young Somali men go around the malls selling different kinds of snacks. You never get hungry in this place. The pricing is quite convenient too. Think of it as quality food with a Chinese price tag.
Speaking of the Chinese, they too are here. They deliver textiles, electronics and a number of goods that are stocked in many shops in Eastleigh. The language of money is a universal one in case you were worried about language barriers.
“Here, success is not about the beautiful business plan you have in mind. It is about taking risks,” says Suleiman Abdullahi, a university student who has lived in Eastleigh all his life. “All the guidelines in the rulebook of entrepreneurship are broken or proven wrong. Risk plays a major component of the economy, but there is something more important; in Somali it’s called inda adheeg. Audacity.”
The ugly Eastleigh
Away from the shinning malls and the warm ambience of Eastleigh’s restaurants, a different story is told by stakeholders of businesses. It is a tale of how they are forced to endure the horrid stench of raw sewer, pot-holed roads and an indifferent local authority. These factors have coupled to make Eastleigh the jewel in the dumpsite; quite literally.
Recently, a high court ruling on a case that was filed by three Somali businessmen stated that the Nairobi City Council shouldn’t collect taxes from over 3,000 traders until basic services are delivered to the residents.
Traders here continue to reiterate very passionately about the role they play in the country’s economy; creating employment opportunities for thousands of Kenyans, while attracting foreign investment and finance. From khat to clothing and hospitality, this area continues to play a role in shaping a country determined to be a middle-income nation by 2030.
“We may not be the backbone of this country’s economy, but we play our bit. It would help to get a little incentive from the authorities concerned,” contends Suleiman Abdullahi whose family also runs a number of businesses in the area.
“Although it is difficult to spot how things work, one certainly feels that there is good flow or liquidity of goods,” says Joakim Arnoy about Eastleigh, a masters student from Norway. “I enjoyed it, it really felt like a Middle-Eastern bazaar.”
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