Calibrating the mama mboga economy

What you need to know:

  • It is estimated that up to 30 per cent of produce goes to waste due to lack of understanding of demand patterns and the value chain.

Every morning along Limuru Road by the Aga Khan hospital, you see handcart pushers (Mkoko Teni) carting groceries from Wakulima Market to the outdoor City Park Market opposite Aga Khan Hospital.

They also re-distribute groceries to various parts of Parklands and Westlands, supplying mama mbogas. These handcart pushers are sometimes found on Uhuru Highway on their way to Nairobi South. They are the backbone of a mama mboga economy that for ages has never been calibrated.

Whilst we all understand that handcart pushers are out to make a living, they serve as a national shame in that we have never thought of innovative ways of transporting goods cheaply from one location to another, or minimized movement by employing technology while maintaining employment levels.

It is simply the most unproductive system of logistics world over that does more to annoy motorists owing to its many accidents than cause any benefits.

Let me digress from mama mbogas and throw tantrums at our universities. We now have several of them with mechanical engineering programs, but it has never occurred to them that innovation happens when you solve a problem no matter how mundane the problem is.

The productivity of mama mbogas will greatly improve with an improvised two-stroke engine that runs on methanol (the killer brew) and costs as much as a Mkoko Teni. Although the two-stroke engine was discovered in 1881, it is widely used in rural China as part of productivity improvement.


The mama mboga economy is perhaps more important than tourism in Kenya since it consists of the production, distribution, and consumption of limited foodstuffs. It is a self-regulating sector that has no government intervention.

The economic agents are disproportionately women either as individuals, businesses, or organizations hence their name ‘mama mboga’ (Mother of Vegetables). They are the buffer between sanity and crime in their homes.

Some of the money they make from long hours of work is either stolen from them or taken forcefully to fund drinking by the men in their homes. They wake up at 3 a.m. in order to get a good deal on their supplies.

We can at least appreciate them by helping to reduce their burden through innovative technologies that will bring about necessary productivity, but first we need to understand the problems that need solving. They are, first, waking up at unholy hours to purchase goods, second, waiting long unnecessary hours for the customer and third, facing challenges in keeping cash safely. In my view we have the solutions to these problems but they needs many players.

First we need to analyse consumption patterns and build the necessary data to guide us in the distribution of produce and planning of other subsidiary industries. For example, we need to know tomato consumption in the Westlands area. This basic knowledge is lacking going by the wastage you see at the City Park Market.

Tons of produce are dumped away when it expires. It is estimated that up to 30 per cent of produce goes to waste due to lack of understanding of demand patterns and the value chain. Some products are only available while they are in season. There is no effort to even out supply on seasonal products some of which rot at farms due to a production glut.


Second, we need to create a Farmers Cooperative Supermarket (FCS) funded by the Cooperative bank of Kenya. At FCS stores, mama mbogas would be allocated slots to which to supply their bar-coded produce. A mobile application can be developed to assist them trace their produce. Once it is sold, their account is credited with what is due to them.

Further, encourage some mama mbogas to invest in subsidiary manufacturing industries that would absorb about-to-expire produce and convert it into new products with longer shelf life and eliminate any wastage. Others will invest in cold storage facility to even out supply of some produce throughout the year.

There are other dynamics that makes these thoughts more relevant now than in any other time. The expansion of supermarkets is adversely impacting mama mbogas, and they are aware. Eunice Chege at City Park Market tells me “it is a matter of time before we are sent home. Two more branches of these large supermarkets and we are in trouble”. Some are beginning to find new businesses.

Supermarkets are also replacing Mom and Pop stores that we have known for years. This is big business that is growing at more than 30 per cent a year in Kenya. The poor also want a piece of the pie from this fast growing sector. We need to create a competitive environment from calibrated Mama mboga.

These kind of changes happened in the US and Europe and now spreading globally. It is unstoppable and convenient way of shopping. Studies show that as you improve on inefficiencies without paying attention to the players, you force a great majority to fall through the cracks of poverty. 

Dr Ndemo is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Nairobi, Business School, Lower Kabete Campus. He is a former Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Information and Communication. Twitter:@bantigito