Musings from East Africa

As Printed in The Marketplace – March/April 2018

Here are some observations about a recent trip to East Africa to visit MEDA projects in Kenya and Tanzania. Stories about these projects will appear in this issue and the next.

East Africans must, of necessity, be among the most entrepreneurial people in the world. A pleasant shoeshine man encountered in the airport in Addis Ababa has taught ancient history at the post-secondary level for 16 years, but finds it easier to support his spouse and four children by cleaning loafers for travellers at $2.99 US a pop than hoping that his teacher’s salary will arrive.


Women in rural Tanzania spoke proudly of the multiple crops, sometimes more than a dozen, that they manage on small plots. In one case, a business owner talked of running micro-enterprises on the side to encourage workers to do likewise. Jane Maini of Vert, our cover story (pg. 15), is deeply committed to improving the lot of the subsistence farmers who are her suppliers.

From some entry points, it seems the entire city of Nairobi, and many rural villages for that matter, are giant flea markets. On a Saturday morning, the ride into the capital from Jomo Kenyatta airport involves having the flea market come to you, with hundreds of vendors weaving in and out of multiple lanes of mostly stalled traffic. Anything you can imagine is on offer in between buses, three-wheeled auto rickshaws known as tuk-tuks, motorcycles and the occasional car. This mobile flea market trade is illegal but relentless.

The activity is especially problematic in the city core, where hawkers block sidewalks and entrances to established businesses and services. See the news column (pg. 22) for a bit more on government efforts to deal with the fallout from peddlers everywhere in Nairobi.


Traffic challenges

Traffic signals are considered suggestions at best in Nairobi. Lane choices seem to be optional, particularly for the multitude of motorcycle riders.

The city has doubled in population over the past 30 years to almost 5 million, with two million making a difficult commute in and out most days. The streets are ill-equipped to cope.

Despite numerous signs warning people not to have more than two riders on their machines, sightings of bikes with three or more people, most without helmets, or loads better suited to pickup trucks, zipping between lanes and passing on either shoulder, were common. At least one hospital has a ward designated for motorcycle accident victims.

Steve Masingila, a Kenya native who has called Oregon home for the past three decades, finds driving ‘stressful” during his Kenyan trips.

Walter, a Kenyan MEDA staffer, was more pointed in his assessment of the traffic challenges. “If you are not patient, you will die,” he said.

Hire a local to haggle

When shopping in Kenya or Tanzania, be prepared to barter, and know that you will do a lot better if you have a local who speaks Swahili to intercede on your behalf, preferably with you out of sight of the vendor. The East African discount allows anyone who appears to be local to make purchases at a small fraction of the prices quoted to off continent pink skins.

Post Author
  • MEDA is an international economic development organization that creates business solutions to poverty. We work in agri-food market systems, focusing primarily on women and youth in rural communities in the Global South. Our success is measured by income, improved processes, increased knowledge, and the creation of decent work.

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