Kenya’s informal traders find lifeline in online sales

Wednesday, May 12th, 2021 12:06 | By
An employee packages goods at a warehouse of the e-commerce platform Kilimall in Nairobi, capital of Kenya, Nov. 1, 2019. (Xinhua/Yang Zhen)

For many years, James Maina, a trader at Gikomba, Kenya's biggest flea market located in the capital Nairobi, considered his stock that consists of house fittings namely wooden doors, frames, locks and gypsum boards the most important things in his business.

However, this changed recently, besides the stock, Maina now considers his mobile phone and the internet as the other key things in the success of his business.

His perception changed when the COVID-19 pandemic hit the East African nation in March 2020 and the government restricted movement in and out of Nairobi.

Many citizens also chose to stay at home, limiting movement so as to stop the spread of COVID-19. Maina saw the number of people visiting his shop shrink significantly leading to a decline in sales.

But there was a way out, he joined an internet platform named and started to sell his wares online. Today, Maina is among small-scale traders in the sector who have been handed a lifeline by e-commerce amid the pandemic.

"The first partial lockdown in 2020 really affected me because I was still relying on walk-in customers but the one that was lifted last week did not because I am now selling online," Maina told Xinhua in a recent interview.

To trade on the platform, both the seller and the buyer must register and their details verified to curb fraud.

"I normally post my goods on the platform regularly and then buyers from any part of the country reach me. We then process the order and payment is done," he recounted.

For buyers within Nairobi and on the outskirts, Maina delivers the goods and then receives payment, including for the delivery charges, or sometimes he uses courier services.

"During the recent COVID-19 partial lockdown, I did not feel it because I sold virtually door frames, doors and locks to people who are even outside Nairobi," he said, his mode of operation having been adopted by hundreds of other traders at the flea market.

Having relied on walk-in customers, some that come as far as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uganda and Tanzania for goods, Kenyan traders adopting e-commerce is a major shift in the East African nation.

Maina sells a door frame at between 3,500 shillings (33 U.S. dollars) and 56 dollars depending on the type of wood it is made of and the size.

"Online trade is the thing. It transcends the pandemic because it is not affected by restrictions as in the case when one relies on walk-in customers," he offered.

At Uhuru Market in Nairobi, traders have embraced e-commerce, selling their wares on a website that bares the facility's name.

"It makes shopping easier and faster. You don't need to visit Uhuru Market as has been the case for years. Once you make your choice, the item is delivered and one pays," said journalist Allan Ininga, who buys African wear from the market.

Joseph Macharia, founder of Mkulima Young, an agricultural online marketplace noted that e-commerce has reached the lowest of the traders who are normally laggards when it comes to adoption of technology because of ease in use.

"Many people already have smartphones thus don't need any extra form of investment to sell their wares online. Besides, traders are realizing that it's flexible, saves time and other resources," he said.

Macharia observed that with the lower cadre of traders embracing e-commerce, the service has taken root in Kenya.Bernard Mwaso, a consultant with Nairobi-based software development start-up Edell IT Solutions, noted with COVID-19 restrictions, Kenyan traders have no choice but to go online if they are to thrive.

"The traders have realized that it is either one makes the big switch or their businesses perish. This is because with the restrictions, buyers have moved online thus traders also must," he said, adding seamless virtual payments have helped e-commerce take root in Kenya. - Xinhua

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