Inside Nairobi’s billion-shilling mkokoteni trade
When it is not moving on buses and tuk-tuks, or trucks and boda bodas, Nairobi moves on the world’s basest engineering invention — the handcart, or mkokoteni in Kiswahili.
Whichever way you turn, from the suburbs to the city centre, the backstreets to the highways, handcarts jostle for space with motorists, their sky-high loads moved from A to B, not on the twisting power of a diesel engine, but the pulling power of man.
But the story is neither in the invention nor the indiscipline in traffic; the story is in the economics of it all — the money.
Nairobi’s unsightly handcarts earn their owners and contractors as much as Sh3 billion annually, the money collected from the hundreds of thousands of people who hire them for all sorts of haulier jobs.
There are over 2,000 such carts in the city centre alone, owned mostly by a clique of ruthless, wily individuals.
These same individuals, about 50 of them, also own over 5,000 dollies doing runs in the city centre.
The combined over 7,000 units are hired out for between Sh50 and Sh150 each by the owners, and earn the contractors between Sh700 and Sh1,200 daily.
This translates to between Sh126 million and Sh378 million for the owners annually, and Sh1.8 billion and Sh3 billion annually for those who pull them.
The mkokoteni is however evolving. From the huge, mechanically unsound wooden ramshackle of the 1970s, a new kid has arrived on the block — and it is called the dolly.
It is no engineering marvel, really, but because of its smaller size, it is faster to build, quicker on the streets, and lighter on the muscle of man.
The owners guard these contraptions jealously, painting their business names and contact numbers in screaming paint on the sides.
Some of the common names in the city centre are Eddy Coco, based at the junction of Luthuli Avenue and Monyo Road; Kioko on Latema Road; Winter and Njuguna at Tea Room; and Prodigal Son, Masikini Hachoki and Solo on River Road.
Mr Kioko Mbaluka, owner of 20 dollies and three handcarts, says the emergence of the dolly has changed the business… for the better.
“I have been in this business for over 20 years,” he says. “I used to own handcarts but I have since transitioned to trolleys as they are now in fashion because of their ease of movement in traffic.”
The cost of building a dolly is between Sh5,000 and Sh8,000, depending on the metal quality while the cost of making one handcart is Sh11,000.
Mr Mbaluka hires out his dollies at between Sh50 and Sh70, and the handcarts at Sh100.
Another owner, Mr Peter Njuguna, says he makes between Sh5,000 and Sh3,000 every week from hiring out his 17 dollies and two handcarts at Sh80 and Sh150, respectively.
Mr George Mutwiri, a 33-year-old who hires a dolly from Njuguna, says that he charges Sh100 to carry a customer’s luggage from his base at Tea Room to the Railways bus stop, and Sh50 if he only gets to Hotel Ambassadeur.
“I make about Sh500 a day, but a lot more during festive periods when many people travel.”
The Nairobi County government rakes in over Sh1.5 billion annually from single business permits issued to, among others, the owners of these carts, according to a report by the Controller of Budget.
The report, County Governments’ Budget Implementation and Review, indicates that, for the first nine months of the 2015/2016 financial year, the county generated Sh1.5 billion from single business permits against a target of Sh2.87 billion.