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Kenya, May 24, 2007

African Shopkeeper Zen

Legally selling Afri-crap with pride

pride in his place
Pride in location
more than a shack
Pride in construction
you buying?
Still the same wares
How can you make an African shopkeeper happy? How can you also make him legal, and hopefully move him or her from the informal to the formal economy of his country? In Kenya you can do this quickly and easily by building a kiosk.

For years under the Moi administration, small shops operated in every unimproved stretch of street that had decent foot traffic. Over time, these shops created their own traffic, their own economies of scale that, on occasion, the government would take exception to.

Then the shops would be razed, destroying livelihoods, commerce, dreams of the very poor African shopkeeper, the very people who were working the hardest to escape poverty. This cycle kept the illegal squatters from improving their shops too much, creating the very eyesores that brought the government bulldozers.

As part of the whole new Nairobi, the city council is changing its ways. It is now building strong, permanent shops for shopkeepers, replacing tin with metal, scrap wood with concrete, dreams with reality.

Outside a fancy hotel, I spoke with a row of shopkeepers who were beneficiaries of this government intervention. They had once squatted on the land, selling their wares to tourists from shanties that were often threatened with destruction by the city. In addition, the proprietors dared not leave any of their stock alone overnight. Thieves would strip the shops bare in minutes.

Now they were quite proud of their new row of shops. Quite modest brick and metal structures to any Western retailer, they were loved by their new owners. Each shop was maybe two meters wide and deep, with welded shelves on the walls and a front of a roll-up metal grate - a simple yet effective retail establishment for Nairobi's trinket sellers.

Each shopkeeper paid a yearly rent to the city for their space, and while that may not be as effective as selling them ownership rights, every single retailer I spoke to was very happy with the situation. They had legal permanence and could plan and improve based on it.

As a shopper, a customer, I was happier with the change too. I am more inclined to buy when the goods are presented in a clean, permanent structure. The buildings also lent legitimacy to the sellers. Now I saw them as official retailers, not scam artists out for a buck.

That doesn't mean I actually bought any of their affectionately termed "Afri-crap". I already have enough trinkets from Africa gathered on my many trips across the continent. But it does mean that these African shopkeepers have achieved their Zen.

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