There are hawkers, and then there are elite hawkers of Nairobi.
The latter operate like owners of the streets in the city centre.
They run their business like any licensed trader, and are rarely in trouble with the inspectorate officers, popularly known as kanjos.
The wares they sell also mirror their privileged status on the streets. Their merchandise is not your usual cheap commodities sold by other hawkers.
What is clear, though, is one thing: Assured protectionby the inspectorate officers with whom they work in cahoots in exchange for a chunk of their daily income.
It is barely noon and the matatus have just emptied human traffic in the capital city, heading to their various workplaces.
For the hawkers, the arrival of people is like a call to action as they suddenly pop out of their hideouts ready for a field day at the heart of the city.
Kimathi Street and Kenyatta Avenue have been turned into open-air markets where the hawkers rule the roost.
At one end of Kimathi Street next to Equity Bank and KFC, one such group is selling shoes, with a pair going for Sh7,000. This is their permanent spot and they are never engaged in the cat-and-mouse games other hawkers go through with the inspectorate officers.
Across the street, in the alley next to Java, another group is selling the same kind of shoes. This group will then move from the slightly hidden alley to the open space next to the Bata shop at 5.30pm.
The two spots have been reserved for the hawkers, who interestingly, sell the same merchandise as the Bata just metres away from them, at almost the same price although the hawkers do not pay licence fees to the Nairobi City County Government.
Further along the street, another group is selling an assortment of fruits and kitchenware spread on the ground.
Across the road to the Old Mutual building, another hawker is selling caps.
On Kenyatta Avenue from Stanbic Bank to I&M Bank are more such hawkers, operating without fear of arrest.
For Nairobi, the capital city of Kenya and the commercial hub of East and Central Africa, any time is market time for this category of hawkers.
It’s fascinating how the more than 1,000 inspectorate officers under City Hall and the Nairobi Metropolitan Services (NMS) are indifferent towards the offenders.
Conversely, hawkers on Tom Mboya Street are always on the lookout. For them, it’s always a hide-and-seek game with the kanjos.
So, how do the elite hawkers do it? “Of course, we have to part with something to have the chance to operate right at the heart of the city,” says one of the hawkers, without disclosing the amounts involved.
But the NMS Director in charge of enforcement, Dr Mark Leleruk, told the Nation no hawker is allowed to be in the city centre.
"No one is exempted. We have been flushing them out of the city centre. These are just crooks who do not listen," he adds.
He terms as "nonsense" the allegations that the hawkers are colluding with NMS enforcement officers.
"Do me a text telling me the location and the time they (hawkers) are there and if you see them there again, come to me personally. We are determined to end this game of cat-and-mouse," he said firmly.
Kimathi Street and Kenyatta Avenue are two of the busiest streets in Nairobi, playing host to high-end offices and the perfect catchment for the hawkers. The two streets have a higher purchasing power than those downtown and therefore, the hawkers prefer them.
Hawkers in Nairobi, just like street families and parking boys, is a menace that successive administrations of the city have not been able to eradicate.
Alleys, backstreets, walkways, streets, avenues, roads and even pavements – every available space has been overrun, even the space in front of shops has been taken over by the hawkers who nonchalantly spread their wares, turning the city centre into a hawkers’ paradise.
From electrical appliances, spare parts, food, cosmetics, clothes, shoes to mobile phone accessories and toys; the hawkers have turned the bustling city centre into a one-stop shop.
As early as 1954, the only street trading permitted in the commercial and residential areas of Nairobi was selling of newspapers, and even this was restricted.
However, by 1984, according to data by the Nairobi City Council Licensing Department, close to 20,000 hawkers had invaded the city. This number is now estimated to be about 40,000, with the city centre alone estimated to be hosting more than 5,000 hawkers.