It is 11.35am when we walk into Nabongo Hotel at Ekero market in Mumias, Kakamega County.
It is almost lunch hour, but the place looks deserted. We find Ms Ruth Masinde, the proprietor, alone, waiting for customers.
Nothing unusual, she says, as this is the case on most days, and not just for her.
She says it is the fate of virtually all the traders here, especially the few hotel owners whose businesses once ruled the market.
Ms Masinde is among tens of struggling traders at Ekero market who still harbour nostalgic memories of the good old days when the market would pulsate all day long with business activity. Those days are, however, so long gone.
Back then, Ekero market teemed with politicians, top businesspeople and other influential personalities in the region, who were sure to stop by for a bite of roast goat meat or chicken.
Business was booming in Mumias town, thanks to the then vibrant Mumias Sugar Company.
Ekero’s fresh mutton, chicken and succulent roast goat meat, all made to perfection, attracted visitors from far-flung parts of the country and beyond, earning the market the moniker ‘international nyama choma zone’.
In its heyday, Mumias Sugar Company was the fulcrum of the region’s economy. There was money – good money – in circulation, which fuelled business and kept the people happy. School fees, the next meal and other basic needs were the last thing on the minds of the local traders and farmers.
The small town of Ekero, which stands at the four-way intersection that connects Kakamega, Bungoma, Mumias and Kisumu counties, was vibrant and teeming with traders, touts, travellers and factory workers. They all jammed the food joints to sate their appetite.
From as early as 11am, there would be people enjoying roast mutton, or goat head, washed down with a cup of soup under a tree.
With the death of Mumias Sugar Company, however, things took a nosedive at Ekero and other neighbouring centres.
With the farmers in the region starved of cash, traders too fell on hard times, leaving everyone who used to live off the sugar value chain struggling to eke out a livelihood.
The fall of Mumias would also mark the end of visits by politicians and influential personalities to Ekero town, dealing a huge blow to the local economy.
Today, the traders at Ekero, who were once used to banking real cash each day, consider themselves lucky to get even one customer.
Everyone seems to have vanished; from the factory workers to the loaded cane farmers and travellers in transit who used to keep Ekero alive.
“I was in the matatu business in Kabras but shifted to meat roasting at Ekero and do not regret my decision,” said Ms Masinde.
Ms Masinde started the business in 2008 after the post-election violence, which led to mass internal displacements.
“The room I operate from was owned by a trader from Central Kenya who was forcibly evicted. I saw an opportunity and seized it because he had a huge number of clients. I capitalised on his foundation and it paid off quite well,” said Ms Masinde.
At the peak of her business, she would slaughter up to 25 goats and 50 chickens, all of which her customers would clear in a day.
“I invested Sh150,000 and, within the first five months, I had made a lot. The market was readily available. Clients were so many,” she says.
To tap into the huge demand, Ms Masinde opened another choma zone within Mumias town.
This too did well and she was about to open another outlet when Mumias came tumbling down.
In those good days, Ms Masinde could bank more than Sh30,000 in profits daily.
But today, she reveals, it is hard to realise Sh7,000 from her daily sales. She slaughters between two and five goats and five chickens daily, she says.
Mr Suleiman Okumu is the assistant manager at Original Ekero Nyama Choma Hotel.
His father, Mr Abdallah Omenda Okumu, has been in the business since 2003, serving ready meat to factory workers and road users who made stopovers for the delicacy.
“Between 2005 and 2015, we used to slaughter between 15 and 20 goats, 10 sheep and more than 50 chickens and we would realise a daily profit margin of between Sh20,000 and Sh40,000. But this is not the case anymore,” said Mr Okumu.
In 2016, Ekero had as many as nine hotels but only three remain – Original Ekero Nyama Choma, Wazee wa Kazi and Nabongo Hotel.
Mr Okumu added that they rely on teachers, county administration employees, St Mary’s hospital staff and travellers who stop over for a bite.
“Travellers who knew about Ekero still stop here for a bite. Employees of the Mumias Law Courts are also helping us stay afloat,” Mr Okumu said.
To spread his bets amid dwindling demand, Mr Omenda has divided the business into a hotel and a butchery where he sells takeaway raw mutton, goat and chicken meat.
The outbreak of Covid-19 and the subsequent containment measures dealt a deathblow to business at the market.
“We used to sell meat up to midnight but now we are forced to close early because there is nobody to sell to in the night. There are neither people in bars nor night travellers,” says Mr Omenda.
To retain the few remaining clients, traders have hired salespeople who position themselves strategically on roadsides to approach potential and direct customers to their stalls.
The salespeople dangle all manner of inducements – from free kachumbari, tomato or chili sauce, a few wedges of lemon, local vegetables to lower prices and discounts.
“There is a lot of unhealthy competition among the remaining operators. If you are rigid with prices, customers will run away and you end up with loads of rotten stock,” Mr Okumu says.