I couldn't help but chuckle when an ex-schoolmate rang me up the other day to tell me he's hopeful his line of work will flourish in this Age of the Wheelbarrow. Why? I asked him. He expects lots of deal-making ahead, he replied, conspiratorially. And he wants to be in the thick of it. Mmm ... I wish him luck.
My fellow doesn't like being described as a hustler. He prefers to be called a deal-maker, a facilitator. At more elevated moments when he's taken a tipple, he calls himself a businessman. Well, that's rather like saying the Wash-Wash fraternity are businessmen, though they mightily struggle to pose as such.
My guy is actually a broker (not the conman type, though). He assists people — at a fee —who do everyday ordinary deals and want to see regulatory procedures hastened. (Not to circumvent them, he insists emphatically). He's a jolly guy. Sharp man-about-town. Knows everybody and everything going on in Nairobi. Very funny too. An hour with him will leave you in stitches.
My first encounter with Mr Broker's "business" was when, years ago, a colleague of mine who wanted to register a limited liability company for a venture he wanted to do sought him out. The whole routine of name search and registering a company at the Registrar of Companies office could be tedious and time-consuming those days. It was also corrupt. My colleague was desperate for his application to be speeded up. His financing bank was on his neck and wasn't going to wait forever. Everything ended well, however, without any bribes being paid.
I've never stepped into Mr Broker's office for all the years I've known him. I cannot even say for sure where it is. Whenever I bump into him, it is at a restaurant on Nairobi's Muindi Mbingu street, where he meets his “clients”. His cell phone is his lifeline, always busy. This Mr Broker doesn't come to you. You go to him.
His clients are all manner of types. There are those buying land or plots and seek confirmation the seller and the land title are legit. Many investors have landed themselves in grief by paying for land whose titles are fake or contested. The last time I met him, he was acting as a broker for a rich Murang'a family that was selling a property on Tom Mboya Street in Nairobi. But there was a fiery intra-family feud which I never found out if it was resolved. I once inquired from Mr Broker why he couldn't just advertise in the newspaper and wait for bidders to come. His answer was cryptic: "We advertise. But property deals are not done simply like that."
Mr Broker is not snooty. He deals with all manner of lowly types. Guys wanting to make a quick sale of a vehicle or wanting to buy a good second-hand one. He arranges all that — for a commission. He doesn't do anything technically illegal. It's just that ... well, there's always a whiff of something fishy about brokers.
I had occasion once to seek Mr Broker's help when I wanted to buy a residential property, off-plan, from what looked at the time to be a reputable developer. He did quick due diligence for me — for free — through his contacts then sternly warned me to keep off that property. I did. Indeed, a year later, the developer went bankrupt. The fraudster fled abroad with millions in deposits, which buyers had deposited with his company, leaving a trail of embittered investors who had banked on his false promises. When I came to say thank you, Mr Broker tapped my forehead with his finger and told me he had saved me some good cash. That day I bought him a nice malt.
In the popular imagination, the word "broker" has associations with Nairobi's notorious River Road. However, brokers are everywhere. A broker is somebody who can help you quicken the issuance of a title deed, or a passport, or a driving licence — anything. When you want to clear your imported car at the port, a broker will materialise. And so on. There's inevitably a whiff of corruption in brokers' activities because they don't always follow the straight and narrow. They jump the queue. Otherwise, they wouldn't be in such high demand.
The trouble with brokers is that they make business expensive. They are like an unwanted middleman who plants himself between what should be a straightforward transaction. They cut corners. This may be convenient for the client, yet it shortchanges others. There are honest brokers, like my buddy Mr Broker. Others are criminals who end up in Kamiti prison.
By their very nature, brokers exist where there's a transactional business that requires complicated documentation, permits, regulatory laws, and such stuff. The former Nairobi Governor Anne Kananu once explained it well. She said city cartels thrive because the regulatory mechanisms are so slow and choked that clients are forced to hire brokers to speed things up. You want approval to convert a property in a residential area to a commercial one? Or do you want something as simple as putting up an advertising billboard? You will need a broker. Unfortunately, corruption festers that way. The system by its very design enables these cartels.
Let's professionalise services so that we won't need brokers.
* * * * * *
Rebecca Miano did an excellent job as CEO of KenGen, a very strategic parastatal under the Energy portfolio. She's been kicked upstairs to the East African Community CS docket. Mmm...let's watch who's to replace her. And what happens to KenGen. As for Prof George Magoha, goodbye and all the best. You were the most hardworking CS in the outgoing Cabinet. I hope your beloved CBC will outlive you.
[email protected] Twitter: @GitauWarigi