Noisy hawkers, impatient hand cart pullers, sharp-eyed pick pockets, curious buyers and resolute sellers, the perfect cocktail that is the sea of humanity at Gikomba Market.
Add the scorching sun boiling mercilessly from above and you know you need to be tougher than the average human to manoeuvre in this market.
Yet as aggressive traders approach potential buyers, goods and services are not the only thing they have to offer. These thousands of entrepreneurs are filled with ugly tales of a problem they have faced for many years.
At the timber and hardware sections of the market- located on the market’s main entrance along Pumwani Road- it is a beehive of activity as dozens of sales persons compete to invite potential clients to their shops.
Looking closely at the timber structures, most of the businesses have CCTV cameras placed at different points.
“We did not have these cameras some years ago but after many cases of fires which consumed our businesses, reducing everything to ashes, most traders decided to put up CCTV cameras as one of the protection measures,” says a timber trader.
Until 2017, this section of Gikomba Market was the unfortunate host to arsonists who set the businesses on fire, burning traders’ stocks, structures and work equipment.
Traders woke up to news of flames ravaging their stocks. They were frequent, painful and unexplained fires that, curiously, always occurred in the night leaving hundreds of the timber and hardware traders in destitution.
“The fires have never happened during the day, it’s always after traders have closed their businesses and gone home. At some point, the problem became so rampant that it sparked a meeting of traders to discuss and investigate the matter,” says Mr Bernard Mwangi, a representative of timber and hardware traders.
Mr Mwangi says after traders held several engagements, there was high suspicion that the fires were being caused by some few rogue traders who had insured their stock against fire, in order to be compensated, despite having sold insured stocks.
A lorry of Cyprus timber goes for about Sh450,000, while a trailer of Mahogany timber (long-haul truck size) goes for between Sh2.8 million and Sh3.4 million. The traders would be counting losses depending on how they had stocked their businesses, most of whom would have just ordered new stocks.
Many closed shops, packed and went home after fires consumed all their stocks and everything they had, while some banks and insurance companies stopped dealing with many traders when they heard of the news that some rogue operators set fires deliberately, to defraud them.
“In 2017, after high suspicions following the fire incidents where many of our colleagues lost their businesses completely, we came together as traders around this area and approached a company to offer security services. Since taking that move, five attempts to burn this section of the market have been blocked,” Mr Mwangi told Nation.Africa.
The traders now contribute Sh3,700 monthly for security and guards have deterred attempts by arsonists to set the market on fire on several occasions.
“That is about Sh100 daily which we find to be safe compared with the losses we used to incur when our businesses went up in flames,” a trader said.
Even today, there are people who still try to set fire at the section of the market, albeit unsuccessfully.
But not every section of the market has been as successful in stopping the fires, since to date the infernos continue to affect the largely second-hand items market causing destruction of properties and losses in the millions.
It is a tale of a man-eat-man society, where some parties burn the market for their own selfish interests, others take the baton to scavenge from destitute traders in their time of servitude, while duty bearers- like merciless coffin makers- deliberately neglect their duty and cash in from these cases of inhumanity.
Until the onset of Covid-19 last year, the traders had resorted to holding mass prayers where they would occasionally close businesses for some period, block roads and start prayers for fires to end.
As recent as last month, yet another fire erupted at the market’s shoe section, leaving dozens of traders counting losses.
During a visit to the market days after the incident, some traders who spoke to Nation.Africa on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue at the ground, revealed that the fires have always been fuelled by a cartel of players in the market and government.
James* a trader dealing in shoes revealed that despite the fires occurring under curious and peculiar circumstances, traders who are always affected suffer multiple losses since scavenging authorities, in utmost dereliction of duty, ask for bribes to respond to their calls or allow them to re-build businesses.
“Every time there is a fire incident, before affected traders are allowed return to business, government officials lock the burnt section in the guise of conducting investigations and ask for money before allowing them to start rebuilding,” James*, who has lost his business on more than two occasions, said.
He said the amount rogue government officials ask for at least Sh50,000 and that traders are forced to dig in their depleted pockets to contribute. Any trader who fails to contribute cannot be allowed to re-establish or operate.
During the last fire incident- on August 6, 2021- traders were shocked when a fire fighting truck showed up at the burning market with no water.
“But after some of the affected traders contributed Sh20, 000, giving it to government officials in charge of fire fighting, another lorry came in shortly with water and started supplying it to the fire fighting truck. Unfortunately, much of the traders’ stock had already burnt to ashes,” a trader said.
Thousands of traders at the market have been living in fear every day and for them, every end of a busy day marks the height of uncertainty on security of their stock and their livelihood. Information that their businesses are under yet another fire is always a phone call away.
“It's like a trend, one section of the market burns today, reconstruction process starts as cartels from different parts take cash from it, then after traders rebuild, bring back stock, things appear to be normal, another section goes down in flames,” a trader said.
The standard security fees for all traders in the market is Sh500 monthly, but traders don’t think the security helps in any way.
Additionally, there are some traders who believe that the market security has a role to play in the fires as they have on many occasions, undermined protests by traders against fires.
Almost every time a fire erupts at the market, government officials show up putting on fake remorse, and uttering promises that are never honoured. These range from investigating the root cause, solving the problem once and for all, establishing working preventive measures, to hand-outs that only act as painkillers.
Surprisingly, high ranking government officials have openly indicated that the Gikomba market fires are not natural.
“We in government do not believe that these fires are natural. We believe that there are some people who think that by displacing the businesspeople here, they will have an opportunity to develop this land on selfish grounds,” Interior PS Karanja Kibicho said on June 25, 2020, after a section of the market went up in flames.
On August 30, 2021, a group of 918 traders from the market sued the Nairobi City County seeking to be compensated at least Sh20 billion over losses they have incurred due to the frequent fires.
In the notice of motion, filed under certificate of urgency, the traders heavily blamed authorities for failing to protect traders’ properties, acting negligently and breaching legal duty.
“The Plaintiffs are apprehensive and anxious that unless swift interventions are effected, it is just a matter of time before their residual stocks and sources of livelihood are reduced to ash by another fire disaster.
“Whenever a fire strikes, the Defendant’s (Nairobi City County) fire fighters in a typical fashion respond without water or requisite apparatus. It’s only after fire has ravaged and everything has gone up in flames that officials of the Defendant will show up to tender hollow assurances,” the traders stated.
Observing the notoriety of fires at the market, the traders told the court that “No other zone, locality or neighbourhood within Nairobi City County, has suffered the wrath of fires to the scale witnessed in Gikomba Market,” complaining that the county has not taken any tangible steps to address the calamity.
“As a result of frequent, unpredictable and endless fire incidents within Gikomba Market, the Plaintiffs have incessantly suffered phenomenal losses, extensive injury, immense pain and indescribable psychological trauma,” they added in court documents.
They termed the county’s refusal to provide fire fighting and disaster management services to traders in the market a deliberate breach of legal duty that has exposed traders’ lives and properties to danger.
This is despite the fact that traders have always paid all the levies, rates, licenses among other fees imposed by the county, court documents stated.
“On the various instances that fire has broken out, I and my fellow traders have lost merchandise, documents and our business premises have been destroyed. Storage facilities within Gikomba have suffered the fate of fire destroying goods, documents and other records relating to business. That my source of livelihood and that of fellow Plaintiffs herein is the business at Gikomba Market. Due to the innumerable fires, I and fellow Plaintiffs have lost business premises, stock and business opportunities resulting in abject poverty,” stated Mr Stephen Murai Mbugua, a trader in the market and the first plaintiff in the case.
Mr Mbugua- a father of four- says in the court documents that he has been a trader in the market for 24 years, running Simka Trading Company Limited.
In the case, the traders cite 16 fire incidents that have occurred at the market between June 2015 and August 2021, where properties worth millions and lives have been lost.
“Quite regrettably, during a fire incident that occurred at Gikomba Market on June 28, 2018, 15 people died, while hundreds sustained severe injuries. Tragically, every attempt by the Plaintiffs to mobilize themselves has always been dealt further blows by recurrent infernos,” the court documents state.
The traders, in particular, accuse the county government of 38 cases of negligence and breach of legal duty, among them causing, instigating, triggering and or permitting repeated, uncontrolled and unmitigated fires in the market, failure to maintain functional lighting, fire warning and response systems within the market, as well as put in place serviceable fire fighting equipment and refusal to deploy proficient fire-fighting personnel on a round the clock basis within Gikomba business hub.
They also accuse the county of refusing to clear and reserve emergency entry and exit routes to facilitate unfettered emergency access to Gikomba Market, dispatching fire fighters to respond to fires when it is too late and without water or requisite fire fighting apparatus and refusal to investigate and nail perpetrators of the market fires.
The fire incidents cited by the traders in the case occurred on June 25,2015, May 26 and September 29, 2016, July 21 and October 6, 2017, March 22 and June 28, 2018 (where 15 people died in the latter incident), July 11, September 18 and November 7, 2018, April 17, 2019, February 1 and June 25- 26, 2020, and August 6, 2021.
They now want the court to declare that the county has breached its duty and violated traders’ rights, direct the county to establish a fully-fledged fire station and requisite fire containment apparatus in Gikomba market within 60 days, Sh1.25 billion compensation for direct financial loss, Sh18.86 billion compensation for loss of business opportunity and reestablishment costs, among other prayers.
But even as competition and the battle for running of the largest second-hand items in the country takes the inhumane, legal and sometimes spiritual battlefronts, a good number of traders are not willing to relocate from the semi-permanent structures from which they operate in, to proposed new modern markets, for fear that they will lose business.
They argue that the nature of ‘Mitumba’ business is that its sprouting environment is when goods are displayed in the open, where buyers can see and choose as they walk on the streets, rather than taking up some space in the eighth floor of a building.
“No trader is ready to move into the new market,” a trader said.
*Names have been changed to protect identity