It’s 4.30am on July 14, 2022, when Samuel Ngacha walks into the Diamond Plaza market in Nairobi, armed with a black backpack and a wad of notes tightly wrapped in a brown envelope and tucked into his jacket pocket.
The market, brightly lit, is a hive of activity, as if to mock the darkness and silence of the surrounding area that suggests that residents are still deep asleep.
Traders walk around dressed heavily, while others bark orders and sip tea to chase away the biting July cold. Some 22 lorries have been parked side by side in the entire market, loaded with fruit cartons.
Two men play throw and catch with cartons, as another pushes a trolley of cartons from one corner to the other. Another one shouts at his counterpart to hurry up, and another wipes off the dew on his oranges.
Mr Ngacha makes his way to his broker, Reuben Obiero, who is taping carton boxes. Standing at five-feet-three, he walks with a slight limp, which is somewhat exaggerated by his uneven shoulders.
Carton at hand, Mr Ngacha sorts his preferred apples into a carton box. Soon, he gets tired of bending and decides to squat. A cough is coming. He turns into his elbow, then readjusts his backpack and goes on counting. Finally satisfied with the quality, he tells Mr Obiero to load his fruits as he proceeds to the next vendor.
Ten minutes later, he hands over his money for two cartons of honey crisp apples, each selling for Sh4,400, and another carton of golden delicious apples selling at Sh4,000.
With no immediate means of transporting his goods, Mr Obiero offers to deliver them himself for free. He is a middleman, he says, explaining that he is here to purchase produce depending on the orders he has received.
“The lorries arrive here at 2am. They sell to us, who then sell them to traders like Ngacha, targeting a profit of Sh100 per carton. We buy apples, oranges, grapes, strawberries, and make sure to have packed up our stock by 7am, then leave and come back the next day,” he says.
At the retail market in Kamukunji, where Mr Ngacha gets his oranges, darkness reigns supreme. Unlike the clean Diamond Plaza market that is well lit, here, the only available lamp on a post is off, and Mr Ngacha and the man that sells to him must rely on their flashlights.
Gunny bags loaded with oranges are strewn all over, covered with banana leaves. At the corner, an old garbage trailer sits almost empty, with rotting banana leaves and polythene bags hanging from the edges. It’s as though the people who use this market are too tired to throw their waste fully into the trailer.
Unlike the interlocking carton boxes that were used to pack his apples, here, the oranges are packed in soda crates, fastened together with a gunny bag and a rope.
With his phone held between his teeth, Mr Ngacha bends over and unties a few knots, careful lest they spill out. Here, he has to sample a few fruits and hope that his gods are on his side, and that all the fruits he can’t reach are as good as the ones he has inspected.
He places a wad of notes on the vendor’s hands, and turns to leave, watching his step lest he trips on a banana leaf. He has to keep an eye on the man pulling his cart into the area, who looks offended that a lorry has occupied all the space he needs. It’s 6am, and Mr Ngacha needs to get to his spot at Nyamakima in time to get the early customers.
Finally, at his spot, he puts on his green overalls before retrieving his fruits from his storage spot and setting them on the table. As he sprays fresh water on them, he recalls how he started and how the business has supported him since. He doesn’t dream of being in formal employment, he begins.
“I am 35 years old, born in Tetu, Nyeri County. I started a business in 2004 repairing electronics but then quit to grow graft tree tomatoes,” he explains.
“My friends and I also started a business selling fruits, before we stopped and tried selling jackets. I eventually ended up selling pepino melon juice in Karatina. I’d get the fruits from the market twice a week from Nanyuki and Naromoru.
“Then I came to Thika and partnered with a childhood friend, but he ran away with my money. Luckily, I had some capital left, and I went back to Nyeri to get myself together.
“To raise capital, I sold sweets for three months, then started a hardware business at Witeithie and sold my fruits outside the shop in a cart.”
Everything was well, he says, until the day he retired to bed in the evening and woke up to find himself in a hospital ward. His parents were low in cash and he used all the proceeds from his business to pay his hospital bill.
When he was discharged, his parents insisted that he go upcountry to recover. When he went back to his house a couple of months later, his expectant wife had fled with all his household items, never to be seen again.
Devastated, he decided to travel to Nairobi to start afresh, and sought employment from his mother’s sister, who had a fruit business at Nyamakima. A year later, when he had mastered the job, she left her stall to him and let him be his own man.
“She brought me here in 2015 and taught me how to do this job. When I got sick again, and my parents didn’t have the financial muscle to take me to hospital, this business paid my hospital bill,” he says.
“It has built me a house, and I contribute to a merry-go-round. I saved the money and invested in livestock. Because of this, and the fact that I am my own boss, I do not envy formal employment.”
His challenges, he discloses, range from relying on friends and Good Samaritans to do his heavy lifting because his doctor forbids him from doing so lest he injures his shoulder, to finding a dry spot to step on when it rains.
Two pipes drain water right into his sitting spot, and when the rain falls, he has to temporarily stop working. Because his table sits beside a matatu stage, he also has no one to blame if an errant matatu driver hits his table and scatters his fruits.
“The other problem is posed by asthma. When it’s cold, I get asthmatic attacks, and my chest aches. Yet I have to wake up early when it's cold to restock my produce. An inhaler and asthma drugs are also expensive,” he says.
“I am, however, grateful that my business is doing well. I give incentives to my customers, and I have learnt the art of making them smile.
“Running this kind of business requires that you learn how to engage with a customer. If they come looking upset, let them leave happy.
“It has worked for me so well that when I come in late, I find my customers waiting for me, while others make their orders on the phone. I can only wish that I get a better spot to work in.”