Vendors in the hot sun: Selling books in Nairobi’s shadow economy

The lookout point in Nairobi’s smart Upperhill district provides an admirable city vista where glistening new buildings pop against faded infrastructure—all evidence of Kenya’s stuttering but undeniable emergence from poverty. But from the bustling boulevard where Joe carefully lays out his books every morning, the view is much different. As a second-hand book seller, he is a member of Kenya’s sprawling informal sector, or jua kali in Swahili—translated literally, “the hot sun”—referring to the long and often sweaty hours street vendors spend outdoors hawking their goods.

Despite belonging to the informal sector, Joe’s line of work makes him a vital part of the Kenyan economy: its informal sector alone accounts for an estimated 77 per cent of employment in Kenya and is estimated to constitute 25 per cent of the nation’s GDP. Nevertheless, the jua kali still languishes in the shadows. Joe says he scrapes together a living with minimal government support and exists at the mercy of security guards and policemen–a constant source of harassment. Often, he complains, he is forced to dole out bribes in order to retain the small strip of sidewalk that hosts his business. “Sometimes you have to [pay bribes] because you have to stay here,” he says. “You must look for money.”

Joe is not alone: last year the Kenya National Alliance of Street Vendors and Informal Traders wrote to police to complain that security guards were summarily arresting members of the jua kali even though they had no authority to do so. But the police in Kenya are, generally speaking, part of the problem rather than a solution. Street vendors are at constant risk of having their goods confiscated by policemen, and are sometimes abused and even beaten by them.

Selling books in the jua kali might be a tenuous existence, but for Joe it was one of the few options available. He finished high school with good grades, but didn’t have the means to go to university. So, after graduating, he moved from his small rural town to Nairobi where he “was just hustle-hustling in the streets” until he turned to book selling four years ago. Joe says that while the trade affords a decent living, he wishes the government would do more to support his venture. Licenses are available for street businesses but, he says, they’re difficult to get and require wrestling with Kenya’s notoriously corrupt officialdom.

The Kenyan government has recently made some fledgling efforts to support street vendors. In 2011, then-Finance Minister Uhuru Kenyatta initiated a 3.8 billion shilling Fund for Inclusion of the Informal Sector, designed to improve access to credit for small businesses. However, Mr. Kenyatta is now running for President in a campaign largely overshadowed by charges of crimes against humanity, laid against him by the International Criminal Court, stemming from Kenya’s 2007 post-election violence. Similar violence is threatening to erupt again as the Mar. 4 polling day approaches. If it does, it could compromise the economic prospects of the informal and formal sectors alike. The World Bank recently warned that the country’s growth rate could tumble by 2 per cent if the election doesn’t go smoothly. Nonetheless, Joe is hoping that this year’s contest will at least see politicians pledging to do more to help the country’s used-book seller fraternity. “There are a lot of them out there who are seeking our votes,” he grins.