A Central Business District Trades its Corporations for Car Washers

Nairobi | 01/28/2013 9:08am
Sam Sturgis | Informal City Dialogues

The neighborhood of Grogan in downtown Nairobi is well known for its informal repair shops. City officials worry that the rising tide of informal businesses is driving bigger companies away. Photo credit: Sam Sturgis

The modern, eight-lane Thika Superhighway, funded with help from the Chinese government and opened with pomp by Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki in November, is being billed as a godsend to Nairobi’s economy, providing a quicker route to the suburbs and streamlining access to important neighboring markets in Ethiopia. With a price tag of over 30 billion Kenyan shillings (roughly $350 million USD), supporters have hailed the highway as an important step toward middle-income status for the country. But for Francis Njoroge, one of Nairobi’s numerous informal workers, it’s not the new artery’s transnational business potential he’s looking forward to – it’s the dirty cars.

Stationed alongside one of the new highway’s off-ramps in Nairobi’s Central Business District, Njoroge scans the traffic for vehicles in need of a wash. He’s not alone here – wooden tables filled with everything from bras to hairpieces line the off-ramp, with eager hawkers, repairmen and car washers waiting patiently behind them. This is one of the first things drivers entering downtown Nairobi see these days, and in many ways, it speaks to the larger economic shifts that are changing the face of Nairobi’s CBD.

Street vendors often shuttle through the CBD depending on the time of day and the presence of City Council officials. Photo credit: Sam Sturgis

The construction of modern infrastructure projects like the Thika Superhighway has initiated a migration of sorts that’s turning the Nairobi metro region inside out. Big companies are leaving the city’s central business district, relocating to newly accessible suburban neighborhoods; the city’s informal workers, meanwhile, are flocking in. This has had the effect of turning the CBD into a stop-over point for commuters living in residential areas on one side of town, whose offices are now relocating to the other. While the corporate flight may not be good for Nairobi’s downtown overall, it makes the area an ideal location for people like Njoroge, who sell goods and services to professionals as they pass through between work and home.

“The City Centre is no longer an ideal location for businesses of our stature,” explains Judith Odhiambo, corporate communications manager for Kenya Commercial Bank (KCB). Citing “security concerns, congestion, and vehicular and human traffic,” KCB has decided to relocate to Nairobi’s Upper Hill neighborhood by the end of this year. As recently as the late 1990s, there were hardly any big businesses in the residential enclave of Upper Hill. But projects like the new superhighway and commercial rezoning have turned it into refuge for some of the city’s most important companies. Once completed, KCB’s new 21-story headquarters will be Nairobi’s eighth-tallest building, located far from what Nairobi professor Fred Iraki calls the city’s “business suicide” zone.

For many of the CBD’s informal workers, however, operating in the business district — historically one of East Africa’s most important — is a profitable enterprise, relatively speaking.

“Business isn’t bad,” says David Khasesa while putting the final touches on a metal necklace and simultaneously waving to two passing European tourists. In the shadow of the Hilton Hotel – it, too, surrounded by Nairobi’s informal matatu mini-buses — lies the open-air Maasai Market. A parking lot during the week, the market has become a hotspot for informal craftsmen and women who do quite well selling and trading items in the lot during the weekend. Some necklaces and blankets can fetch between 1,200 and 1,800 shillings ($14-$20 USD), more than the ones sold by most of the vendors in the city’s informal settlements.

Informal craftsmen and traders have found a sense of continuity within Nairobi’s CBD. Photo credit: Sam Sturgis

The trend has city officials concerned that the CBD is becoming overrun by informal workers, with each new vendor making the district a little less appealing to big companies. At the Maasai Market, a weekly fee of 50 shillings (60 cents) paid by each vendor keeps the market free of harassment from the City Council. But vendors who can’t afford that, like Kathryn Muthoni, find themselves on the run. As we’re speaking, Muthoni keeps one eye on her wooden stand and the other on the lookout for trucks emblazoned with the green-and-yellow City Council logo. She finds work in the CBD profitable, but unstable. Electrical outlets, phone chargers and sunglasses are spread strategically across a weathered bed sheet – presentable to passing customers, yet easy to quickly bundle up if a City Council official comes by. “Just yesterday I had to grab my things and move,” says the single mother, adding that it’s the only time she ever loses her items.

Nairobi’s Star newspaper recently reported that in 2009, the Westlands and Upper Hill neighborhoods received more than half of all commercial development permits approved by the city government. The CBD received only 15 percent. Additionally, as pointed out in a 2010 report by the International Society of City and Regional Planners (ISOCARP), Nairobi’s rapid population growth isn’t going to slow down any time soon. Over a million more people are expected to move to the Nairobi Metropolitan Region in the next four years, most of whom are likely to seek informal work in a business district that’s already struggling to keep its appeal to corporations alive.

But the suburbanization of Nairobi’s big companies seems to be only accelerating, and more and more informal workers are setting up shop in the CBD. “End of an Era” was the headline in the Saturday Nation newspaper on September 19, referring to the decision by the Nairobi Securities Exchange (NSE) to leave the Central Business District for Westlands. It was arguably the most glaring shift yet in the CBD’s economic pulse, and seemed to signal the beginning of a new age for downtown Nairobi, one where the trade of second-hand clothing outpaces the trade of stocks. “Most of us still move market to market,” says one of the downtown street vendors. But Nairobi’s CBD seems poised to become a different market altogether.