Paul Maina had to brave the sun and long queues at Nyayo House to get his passport renewed. It took him three long hours to get to the very last counter where his photo was to be taken.
But as he stood to enter that final room, relieved that the end was in sight, the Immigration officer he approached turned him away, barely sparing him a glance. He was confused. What had gone wrong? Come back in a shirt, he was curtly told.
Paul had no idea he could not have his passport photo taken while in a T-shirt, and did not recall seeing a sign saying he needed to be dressed in a shirt, nor did anyone in the three hours he spent at the Immigration office point this out.
“My choices were to go home, get a shirt and come back the following day, or find a quick fix in town,” he said.
To avoid having to queue for a second day, Paul asked the most friendly looking of the officers at Nyayo House if they knew where he could borrow a shirt from. He was referred to the one of the men milling around outside the main gate.
“I didn’t even get a chance to speak. One guy looked at me as I approached, clarified, ‘Shati?’, I said yes, and he ran off to a nearby bus stage. A minute later, he was back holding a shirt and asked for Sh100 to ‘rent’ it,” says Paul.
He went back into Nyayo House, was ushered to the front of the photo line, and in under 10 minutes, he had returned the shirt.
“The shirt smelled like it had just been taken off the back of someone who had spent a long day out in the sun. Still, it served its purpose,” Paul recalls.
It is these kinds of bureaucratic systems that have created opportunities for creative Kenyans to earn a living by charging a fee to make things faster and easier for the public.
While some solutions appear rudimentary, they still address a problem, which is the central pillar of entrepreneurship. And they are easy to start.
Because the shirt rule is not one known to many people looking to get passports, close to 50 people a day are forced to hire one, according to one of the young men making a living by providing services outside Nyayo House. He adds that shirt hire can cost up to Sh200.
This means that for some clever Kenyan, coming to town wearing a shirt can earn you up to Sh10,000. Nyayo House’s passport services operate between Monday and Friday, which means in a month, shirt hire can bring in Sh200,000. Tax free.
However, as often happens with these kinds of businesses, the earnings are split among a group of middlemen.
Still, the business opportunities abound. For instance, for Sh200, you can get someone to stand in the passport queue for you until you’re required.
The rains, too, bring with them their own special brand of business opportunities, particularly in urban areas. Hustle caught up with one young man around Nairobi’s Outer Ring Road who introduced himself as Ngugi. He was wiping mud off people’s shoes.
Poor drainage combined with lack of walkways for pedestrians has forced most people to wade through mud on the way to their offices. Most of these workers do not have the time to sit and wait for their shoes to be polished, nor can they afford to walk into their offices dragging in mud. This is where Ngugi comes in.
“You just look at what is available and what can be turned into an opportunity,” he says.
“Wiping mud off people’s shoes is a good business, and if it rains really well and you wake up very early, you can make as much as Sh1,000 in a day.”
Ngugi charges Sh20 for every pair of shoes he cleans.
And with the long rains season looking promising, Ngugi believes if he works hard, he could make as much as Sh24,000 a month – twice the official monthly minimum wage of Sh12,000.
“Unajua Kenya mahali imefikia, ni kuwa creative ndio utoboe (You know with where Kenya is, you have to be creative to make it),” he says.
Ngugi is referring to the high levels of unemployment in the country, particularly among the youth. According to the World Bank, one in every five working-age Kenyans has no job, a situation that has left many idle and susceptible to taking up crime.
To make something of themselves, young people like Ngugi are identifying opportunities that can be turned into businesses, however temporarily. For them, surviving today is the goal. This has bred the ‘hustler mentality’, where every opportunity to earn a shilling is exploited.
Shoe cleaners such as Ngugi don’t need shoe polish and other tools that come with the conventional trade. They only need a rug, a can of water (which is usually rain water), and a piece of wood that customers can place their feet on as their shoes are wiped clean. Their tools of trade cost nothing.
There are also those energetic youth who, for Sh20, will carry you on their backs if the road to your house or office gets flooded. Again, there is no capital outlay required.
Moses Bwire, a lab technician who used to work in Nairobi’s Eastleigh Estate, remembers having to pay to get across a flooded road.
“I paid Sh20 every weekday for two weeks just to be carried on a handcart across the road,” he says.
Others will lay a make-shift bridge across a path and charge people to use it.
Bitange Ndemo, an associate professor at the University of Nairobi’s Business School, describes these sorts of businesses as “necessities”. People get into them when circumstances demand, and there are millions of young people who have turned necessities into their main sources of livelihood.
Take, for instance, the many businesses that thrive along roads prone to heavy traffic. Many maize, sugarcane and newspaper vendors would be driven out of business if traffic jams were to be resolved.
And then there are also the traffic marshals who take it upon themselves to sort out the messes roads can become – at a fee.
“I have been forced to pay Sh20 at the Eastern Bypass when some young men came to sort out a traffic jam. We had been stuck in one spot for more than 30 minutes because no driver wanted to give the other way, but with the young boys’ intervention, the roads were cleared in about five minutes. It was money well spent,” says Fred Mutahi, who lives in Kangundo.
XN Iraki, a lecturer at the University of Nairobi, says these youth who are not waiting for Government assistance to make a living should be encouraged.
“One of the key facets of entrepreneurship is identifying opportunities. That’s what the youth are doing. It is about offering a solution at a fee.”
Dr Iraki identified a petrol station in Westlands, Nairobi, that attracts long queues.
“There is a man who stands beside the queue, smiling at the motorists lining up for fuel to entice them to check their tyre pressure. He charges Sh20 per car. In a day, he could easily serve 200 motorists, hauling home a cool Sh4,000,” says Iraki, adding that such opportunities to start businesses without money are in plenty.
However, the big question is whether most of these necessities can lead to something bigger.
“Entrepreneurship is about identifying opportunities, as these people have done, but how scalable are the ideas?” wonders Dr Ndemo, a former permanent secretary in the Ministry of Information and Communications, adding that a good number of young people were in business for “subsistence” reasons.
But Iraki believes that some of these small ideas, mundane as they may seem, can be scaled up into the next Uber.
“Think of Petty Errands and how it became a viable business, or even IkoToilet. The future businesses often start small,” says Iraki.
Petty Errands, a courier services provider, was started in 1995 to run errands for companies, saving them the cost of paying messengers at the end of the month. IkoToilet builds and runs public toilets.
And even if some of these necessities are not as scalable as these two businesses have proven to be, they offer an easy path for young, unemployed youths who would like to get into business to raise capital.
“I have seen people transition from being porters into being property owners,” says Ndemo.