We were not always businessmen, but we have learnt fast


The 10th World Trade Organisation Ministerial Conference comes to Kenya in December. This is the first time that an African country will be hosting these international trade talks. What local accents will play into the tenor of this meeting? How can local nuances and needs determine the outcomes? What does international trade have to do with national culture?

Trade shapes new cultural products and processes while a people’s culture determines how they do business and the kinds of unique opportunities for trade that they generate. From its earliest moments on the Kenyan coast, our history of international trade has yielded many enduring things.

Our national language, Kiswahili, emerged as a by-product of the contact between Indian, Arab, Portuguese and African merchants. Kiswahili grammar is replete with Arabic words. Others like pesa and meza are taken from Portuguese while Hindi and Gujarati have given us dunia, Har-ambe, kachumbari and others. This fusion of language came with the borrowing and blending of cuisine, dress and other arts.

Trade back then was not always edifying, equal or informed by the rights of all peoples. Slavery remains a blot on the whole history of international trade.

While we have remained shy, perhaps even reticent, in making our trading demands on the international stage, we are not devoid of skills to negotiate global terms of engagement. We have never allowed ourselves to be limited solely to the boundaries between villages.

Our trading practices are replete with examples of brave frontier men and women who left their ancestral villages and set up thriving business hundreds of miles away and built new relationships and families in those elsewheres.

This spirit of boundless seeking found new impetus even under the restrictions of colonialism. We blended it with the kind of networking that John Lonsdale terms moral ethnicity, and propelled entire communities into specific trades. For example, on the long road from Mombasa to Malindi and across the breadth of this country, Akamba-speaking peoples visibly dominate the retread tyres business. How such networks were extended is a study in business development.


If, in these olden days, individual Kenyan communities were ready to trade with people who did not look or sound like them in what ways did the prospect of independence spiral our role within international trade?

In the early years of independence, old colonial networks prevailed. We produced lowly priced raw materials and bought expensive finished products. Lingering colonial attitudes to local products worsened this trade deficit. We treated the imported product as the more superior one in terms of its functionality and its quality. We were unable to fully exploit local resources, produce genuinely indigenous things, name, brand and find markets for them.

Additionally, there was a genuine shortage of technical business skills. In 1965, the government established the Kenya National Trading Corporation (KNTC) as part of its policy on Africanisation of Commerce. KNTC’s mandate was the distribution of mass consumer goods like textiles and sugar. By: 1969, KNTC had a list of 25 goods on their manifest and by 1970 they had grown to handling a total of 45 products.

In July 1970, the Minister for Commerce and Industry Mr James Osogo said: “The corporation has appointed 970 African distributors Regarding the import/export trade, the Corporation has been by far the largest African organisation and has been training Africans passing on some import business to them for a small commission.”

In reality, Africanisation did not play out seamlessly, not least because its politics of identity was hampered by the idea that Kenyan Indians were not really Kenyans. Further, the Africans who took over the shops on Nairobi’s River Road and got the import licences lacked sufficient skill and impetus to make the businesses thrive.

Forty years since, there is a dramatic leap in formal cross-border trading skills. The coffee boom of the mid 1970s contributed to the rise of new urban centres like Chepkube, and the emergence of a new class of middle-men ferrying coffee from the war-torn Uganda to Mombasa.

Their trade was dictated by the informality and illegality of the black market, but they generated a marked rise in disposable incomes for a quasi-literate class. Their success came with conspicuous consumption.

Incidentally, the Free Market Exhibition, known simply as “Stalls” is another recent moment in which we have seen the emergence of a new class of international traders. The local pioneer of the “Stalls” concept was an enterprising Tanzanian, resident in Kenya, known as Nelson Kajuma.

Kajuma seized the opportunity for large-scale retail trade from the liberalisation of the 1990s. His Freemark International Trading Company hired the plenary hall at Kenyatta International Conference Centre (KICC) and divided it into an open-plan lay-out of tables. He advertised inviting anyone who had something to sell to rent a table.

That venture was such a roaring success that Kajuma took a long lease on the bigger grounds at Nairobi Railway Club. He set up a canopy of tents, wooden off-cuts and other make-shift materials that were often drenched in Nairobi’s downpours.

Soon Kajuma started a travelling Freemark. It would arrive in towns like Thika, Nakuru and Eldoret on a Thursday morning, lease space at the Town Hall and do brisk business until Sunday evening.

By: the time Kajuma’s Freemark literally caught fire on the night of August 30, 2002, his stalls concept had spread to virtually all the major towns in the country. Real estate owners now found new ways to reap maximum rental income in an economy that had sunk to a 0.3% growth rate per annum.


Instead of one tenant taking 5,000 square feet, traders would convert the space into individual stalls of up to 90 square feet each. Most tenants were start-ups entering a variety of businesses — retail textiles, electronics, mobile telephony and cyber cafes. They exploited the flexible leasing terms (sometimes rent was paid daily rather than monthly) and stretched their capital.

There was a staggering rise in women entrepreneurs. Many who started with Kajuma at the Railway Club grounds in 1994 were typists and secretaries retrenched during the civil service restructuring famously known as the “golden handshake”.

A few women would raise money for one person to go and shop in London. The goods would be distributed between the women, according to their contributions, for onward sale at their individual tables. Freemark became a fashion trend-setter for the growing middle-class.

Today, some pioneer Freemark women own the sizeable upmarket shops in Nairobi’s malls. They regularly hop from Nairobi to Guanghzou to Istanbul and Dubai, exploring trading partners that Kenya never had in its decolonising years.

They have mastered the mechanics of importation and short term borrowing that eluded the generation of their parents in the early 1970s. Without any prior design or donor-funded proposal, Freemark has been one of the most successful gender empowerment programmes in Kenya!

Freemark is not the only instance in which Kenya has generated an enterprise model from a cultural ethos of Harambee and multi-tasking. Safari tourism — including those waiters who transform themselves into dancers before drinks and after dessert — is a Kenyan concept that has been replicated by companies in other countries.

Despite the establishment of the Industrial and Commercial Development Corporation over 50 years ago, the challenge of exploiting local resources to produce and market globally, genuine local goods, remains.

But some regional business players have been successful in international markets. Recently, Interworld Cosmetics, makers of the Nice & Lovely brands, was purchased by the international cosmetics giant L’Oreal. The success of Interworld’s parent company — Paul Kinuthia’s Interconsumer Products — lay in a deep-seated understanding of volume of demand for low-end beauty products as a factor in profitability. What other aspects of our culture have we brought into trade? Do they facilitate or inhibit our growth on the international stage?

We must exhaust the answers to these questions as we prepare to reap maximum benefits from the WTO meeting.