Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Curious Case of Chinese Street Hawkers in Kenya

Last week, Kenyan street merchants took to the streets in protest, not in commerce. They marched from Eastleigh to the Prime Minister's office to protest Chinese merchants they said were taking over the streets of Nairobi.

“The Chinese must go. Let them come and build roads. We don’t want them to manufacture goods, export them to Kenya, and engage in wholesale, retail and even hawking the goods,” James Thamo, one of the protestors, told The Star newspaper.

The newspaper didn't interview any Chinese hawkers, and I have yet to see any dispatches that show any Chinese street hawkers in the Kenyan capital (this photo
captioned, "Chinese hawkers in Kitale town," simply shows a guy who may or may not be Chinese and may or may not be involved in street vending; the woman behind him--who may be hawking or may simply be entering the car--doesn't appear to be Chinese.)

I do know, though, that after the economic crash of 2008 and 2009, many Chinese firms that had previously relied on African middlemen coming to China to buy, changed their strategies and started sending sales representatives directly to Africa. I  met some of them in Nigeria. And it's only one step from that to sending people to Africa to take care of the retailing.

Still, what interests me here is that the hawkers -- many of whom are unlicensed -- have petitioned the government to crack down on the Chinese, who they claim have no work permits. What's more, the hawkers complain that the Chinese are doing business even though they come to Kenya on 3-month tourist visas, yet that's exactly how most Kenyan entrepreneurs travel to China.

I like the contradictions.

UPDATE: Today, The Star reported this: 'THE government is not aware of any Chinese nationals engaged in hawking business in urban areas, Minister for Trade Moses Wetangula has said. However, the minister admitted before Parliament there are isolated cases of Chinese, Somali and Indian nationals who have been “spotted” doing business in various commercial centres in Kenya.'


Niti Bhan said...

Its not just Kenya...

rn said...

Hey Niti: Thanks. I had missed that FT article. Here's the Inter Press Service article that spawned the MSM coverage:

It's clear that small-scale Chinese traders are setting up businesses in Africa. It's not clear that they are engaged in street hawking just yet. But you never know.

Niti Bhan said...

They are apparently, street hawking, in Zambia and Malawi per the first article I'd rounded up in that post. What's interesting is why this should show up wrt Kenya when even I didn't see any of this (Jan to July this year). I did see Chinese sales people in the informal electronics bazaars though, quite visibly, but that's about it.

Niti Bhan said...

:) Oh I see we're shoving the same links to each other :) its just that Kenya one that seems planted somehow ;p