Navigating one’s way around Wakulima Market is one of the most taxing endeavours a Nairobian can go through. The outer lane of Haile Selassie Avenue, adjacent to the market, has been taken over by hawkers who buy foodstuffs from the market a few metres away and sell them to those who do not want to step on the sludge inside.
Trucks full of fresh provisions park in the small lane leading to the market entrance while men, their arched backs heaving with sacks of carrots, cabbages and onions make catcalls for pedestrians to move out of the way. It is easy to lose your way – and your head – here.
My sights are trained on a man standing by parked handcarts. He is a veteran of Nairobi’s informal transport business.
When we meet up with Paul Kuria on this particular Tuesday afternoon, he is the very picture of exhaustion. He rests his tired face on one of the cart’s push bar.
He looked a bit apprehensive when I introduced myself as a journalist looking to write a story on the handcarts. But he loosens up when he learns I mean no harm to his business.
When Kuria came to the city in 1982, being a handcart operator was the last thing on his mind. Like thousands of young school leavers who migrate to the city annually, the 53-year old father of eight was drawn by bright prospects of finding a decent form of livelihood.
But as it usually turns out, finding a ‘proper’ job in the city for the newcomers is a Herculian task.
Rent a cart
“I moved out of home in Kinangop hoping to find a good job. But as things turned out, I ended up working in a restaurant in downtown Nairobi. In any case I had no proper academic papers to help push my way up the job market,” says Kuria. In the course of his work, Kuria met and developed some special friendship with one of the fresh food suppliers who used to operate a mkokoteni, or handcart. He told Kuria how he too, could join him in delivering supplies to other traders nearby.
“I liked the idea and went out to rent a handcart for a about Sh5 a day. That was a lot of money back then considering that my fare to Kinangop was Sh15,” says Kuria.
That simple idea put Kuria on a path he has not deviated from ever since. He is one of the handcart owners at the busy market that supplies fresh fruits and vegetables to most of Nairobi.
Currently, his “fleet” Christened ‘Skyguy’ consists of 28 handcarts that he rents out for Sh150 per day to other young men working around the area. At the height of his business about a decade ago, Kuria owned a record 75 handcarts.
“In the past, we had very few people in this business, However, hard times have pushed many to embrace this business. We are now over 50 operators here operating close to maybe more,” he says.
His day starts before the rest of the city wakes up. In darkness, he finds his way to the market where trucks laden with fresh produce await to offload. Waiting too are casual labourers who upon securing some ‘transport’ contracts will turn to Kuria and his ilk in order to hire the handcarts.
Keeping track of his fleet is no mean feat, especially since there are no proper bookkeeping processes.
“These guys will disappear for most of the day. It is a matter of trust here. In any case, where can you run to with my handcart? You will still be operating in this market or its vicinity,” he says.
Like other sectors of the economy, the handcart business is being affected by the rising cost of goods. As an example, Kuria says it used to take Sh5,000 to assemble one handcart just a few years ago but the cost has since escalated to Sh16,000.
Basically, the handcart consists of two, second-hand tyres, one on either, side a metal frame that supports the handles and planks of wood laid horizontally against the metal frame as the good-carrying base.