By Kenneth Kipruto and Alan Mungai

On a grey January evening, 32-year-old Naomi Kwamboka weaves through the vehicles caught up in a gridlock along Nairobi’s Bunyala Road. She taps on a window then holds up an array of cartoon character stickers. Angry Birds, Ben 10, Sofia the First, Elsa. A mastered motion. 

A hand reaches out from inside the car and she hands over some packets of stickers. As they haggle over the price, the traffic opens up and Kwamboka runs frantically alongside the white Toyota Allion. The driver hands her a Sh200 note and speeds off.  

“Sometimes they just drive away without paying,” she says, stuffing the note in a fanny pack.  

Kwamboka had her life planned out, she said, and it did not involve running after vehicles in Nairobi’s punishing traffic jams to eke out a living. A decade ago, Kwamboka turned her back on Keroka, a small town on the border of Kisii and Nyamira counties in Western Kenya and made the six-hour journey to Nairobi, some 290 kilometres away, for a fresh start to what she thought would be a new life.  

Had the stars aligned in her favour, Kwamboka would have preferred to work in an office, as she imagined she would when she, against all odds, pursued a certificate course and later a diploma in Business Information Technology at Mount Kenya University. She completed the diploma programme in 2016.  

But despite the rigours of the harsh economic times she endured to complete her education, Kwamboka never graduated.  

“I have a balance of Sh29, 000 for my last semester and I cannot graduate until I clear it,” she says.   

She is now part of a growing number of educated and economically frustrated youth who have descended onto the highways in Nairobi to work as hawkers.  Some, like Kwamboka, migrated to Nairobi in the hope of earning a livelihood, but end up on the street.   

Naomi Kwamboka at her home in Nairobi’s Kayole Estate. She opened up her house to us during the interview. PHOTO Kenneth Kipruto.

Over the past few years, there has been a drastic rise in hawking along major highways in Nairobi such as Uhuru Highway, Mombasa Road, Jogoo Road and Thika Highway partly due to high levels of joblessness and worsening economic conditions. 

Since the existence of these vendors’ is transient – they change their location depending on where there is high traffic of vehicles and a low probability of arrest – it is almost impossible to estimate the number of traffic jam hawkers in the city.   Their customers are busy city dwellers who find it opportune to buy items from their vehicles during their commute.  

Like Kwamboka, Roseline Nyanchama ekes out her living selling wares in traffic jams.    

Langata Road, Bunyala Road and the slip road that links the two have provided Nyanchama with a place to grieve her husband and raise her child. For her, the day begins at 5am when she leaves her house in the slums of Dandora for the city and ends at 9pm when she walks the four kilometres from her place of work to City Stadium to take a matatu back home.

She too is a statistic in cluster of jobless Kenyans earning a living from traffic jams. To them, a driver’s loss in time and fuel is their gain. An extra shilling to buy food, pay rent and school fees.

The Labour Force Basic Report released by the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) in 2018 reported Kenya’s unemployment rate at 7.4 per cent. About 85 per cent of those unemployed were aged below 35. 

According to the Kenya Economic Survey 2019, 840,600 new jobs were created in 2018 compared to 909,800 reported in 2017, 69,200 fewer jobs than the previous year.

Too poor to rent shops or stalls in the markets, street hawkers have taken advantage of Nairobi’s notorious traffic jams to make a living. 

Hawkers are a polarising lot. They are a menace and at the same time a convenient market.  They enjoy a mutual relationship with drivers and conductors of matatus. In return for being allowed into the buses to sell, they often offer traffic updates to matatu operators and help them to avoid the gridlocks.   

Nairobi’s main roads transform into mini markets whenever motorists are stuck in the traffic jam.  Each year, the Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA) registers about 100, 000 used cars that are imported into the country. According to the most recent survey released by the KNBS, some 102,036 cars were imported in 2018.  

The majority of these cars will end up in Nairobi. The Nairobi Metropolitan Authority (NaMATA) estimates that traffic jams in the city cost the economy Sh100 billion each year. 

In Nairobi traffic, you can buy anything from car windows wipers to flying kites, rat poison, citrus fruits, groundnuts, Mukombero (a traditional aphrodisiac) and, according to Makueni Senator Mutula Kilonzo Junior, even banned pornography.   

In a recent discussion for a Bill to regulate the informal sector, the Makueni Senator said about Uhuru Highway: “We used to call it Uhuru Highway Investments because we would buy very many nice things that were sold there but there was also contraband. Therefore, the trade by hawkers must be regulated.”  

Nairobi’s traffic jams tell the story of two sides of the Kenyan economy – the formal economy losing 57 working minutes every day caught in the grinding gridlocks and the hawkers like Kwamboka who see a market for their wares. 

A story of resilience but one that is also perilous.  

Traffic jam along Uhuru highway,Nairobi. July 28th,2020 [Elvis Ogina,Standard]

In her daily life, weaving through moving traffic, death hounds Kwamboka and others like her as they run after cars to make a sale.  

“When I was just beginning, a man was killed by a vehicle as he ran after a customer. He used to sell compact disks,” Kwamboka says, her face passive.    

And he wasn’t the only one of the hawkers to meet death in traffic. The possibility of death and injury is something they have made peace with.    

On September 6, 2018, a hawker was crushed to death by two matatus at Makadara along Jogoo road – where hawkers vending sweets and confectionaries are ubiquitous.  

In the gruesome pictures which were widely shared on social media, the woman lay lifeless in the tarmac, the confectionaries she was selling strewn alongside her offering a look at the perils that street hawkers expose themselves to earn a living.   

Many more are forced to jump out of moving vehicles to alight, resulting in injuries. Very few have reflector jackets to alert vehicles to their presence. 

Kwamboka sells cartoon stickers and sometimes wall hangings, a commodity that she says is popular among urban parents of young children.  

At her double roomed house in Kayole where she lives with her six-year-old twin girls and a 10-year-old nephew, stickers of the cartoon characters she sells adorn the walls. 

On the second day we caught up with her, she was down with a recurring cough, a complication she says she gets from inhaling vehicle smoke, one of the effects of spending too much time in traffic. 

For the day that she was sick and at home, she had used almost all the money she had and could not raise enough to buy new stickers to sell. She buys them at Kamukunji Market. On a good day, she makes a profit of Sh500, but she also risks losing some of it as bribes to county government enforcement officers. 

Harassment by county officers, notoriously known as kanjo, is one of the risks that the informal vendors are exposed to. 

It is common to see traders scampering between vehicles with their merchandise at the sight of kanjo who confiscate their goods, demand bribes to release them or sometimes arrest and fine them. 

Kwamboka said she had been arrested three times. In two of those arrests, she evaded a court appearance and subsequent fines by offering a bribe. In late 2019, she was held without charge, forcing her colleagues to scrounge up Sh3000 that they paid as a fine. 

“Those who sell bananas and sweets are worse because they are especially targeted by kanjo because of littering,” she says. 

Some manufacturers have grabbed this opportunity to brand some of the hawkers selling sweets. Along the Thika – Nairobi Highway there are hundreds of hawkers wearing reflector jackets branded with companies selling confectionaries. 

According to the Kenyan Traffic Act, littering on the highways will attract a fine of Sh10,000. The Kenya National Highway Authority (KeNHA) recently announced that they would step up the enforcement of the law, an action that is likely to cause more arrests of highway hawkers. 

Part of the reason for the lack of goodwill towards the hawkers in the highways is the claim that they exacerbate traffic jams by causing motorists to slow down to buy from them. 

However, a police officer directing traffic at the intersection between Mombasa Road and Uhuru Highway, while denying that officers colluded to stop the traffic so that hawkers could make a sell in exchange for a cut, the officer said vendors distributing free newspapers were a bigger concern. 

“It is not really the hawkers. The problem we have are the people who give out free newspapers because rather than walking among the stationary cars, they wait until the cars are moving then start handing out the newspapers, meaning that the traffic will stop again,” the traffic police officer said. 

There are attempts in the Senate to formalise the sector by introducing legislation that will mandate the listing of all informal vendors and the designation of specific areas of their operation.   

Naomi displaying one of her best selling products.

Kirinyaga Senator Charles Kibiru, the Chairperson of the Senate Committee on Tourism, Trade and Industrialization, published a Street Vendors (Protection of Livelihood) Bill, 2019. 

The Bill was adopted by the Senate in October of 2019.  

Should the National Assembly pass it, it will create a law to govern the business of street vending. It will be upon county governments to designate vending zones in specific streets, sidewalks, pavements and also keep a national registry of street vendors in Kenya.   

“We felt that this bill is needed because the hawkers are part of the retail sector that needs to be formalised. There is a lot of potential in terms of employment and being a hawker is looked down upon and criminalised,” Senator Kibiru said. 

“We need to provide sections of the highways or roads where vending can formally take place in an ideal way, the quality is assured and so they can’t be chased around and hunted like animals.”  

But with a law to guide the trade in the works, critics of formalisation feel that their source of livelihood will be jeorpadised and would do little to ease the running battles with county enforcement officers. 

There are those who feel that should the Senate adopt the rule then they would become illegal. They prefer operating in the gray area that they do. But even more are not aware that there are discussions towards the formalization of hawking. 

“The reason why we are on the streets is because we cannot raise the money to pay the county for permits and licenses, now they want us to pay again?” Robert Gichure asked.

However, Senator Kibiru says that the law would only require a small amount of money.

“Something like Sh100 that can be a service charge and so that the counties can provide the amenities,” he said. 

Economists agree on the need to fomalise the sector to guide the taxation policy of the government and to accurately calculate Kenya’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). 

“GDP worldwide does not capture all economic activities. It not only leaves out lots of informal sector activities like hawking but also the underground economy from drug dealing to prostitution. That means economies of developing countries are much bigger than reported. Where do we capture chamas and the “mama wakufuas” . We can’t forget hawkers and other informal economic players,” Professor XN Iraki, an economist and lecturer at University of Nairobi said.   


University Don and Economist XN Iraki

 “The best way to formalize these economic players is to have them form saving societies like matatus or pay taxes,” XN Iraki

“The tax rate should be reasonable enough not to discourage the informal players. Provide them with basic infrastructure so that they do not feel like a nuisance.”

Nairobi Area Metropolitan Transport Authority (NaMATA) Director General Francis Gitau said organized hawking and vending along the highway was also a big part of organizing transport in the city. 

Gitau’s argument is for the provision of lay-bys where motorists can buy from vendors, easing traffic jams or permitting hawking in designated streets and intersections.

 “It will make it easier for them to position themselves in the economy and improve their predictability,” he says.   

NaMATA was established three years ago by President Uhuru Kenyatta to address the challenges in the transport sector in the Metropolitan Area, among them the traffic jams in Nairobi.   

“The regulation of the trade will therefore ensure that street vendors are able to transact business in favourable conditions,” Gitau says.

But it is not a problem in Kenya only.

Global Traffic Scorecard Courtesy of INRIX

Other countries such as Uganda, Ghana, Nigeria, South Africa, Jamaica and India are also puzzling over how to manage hawking, that has become a permanent feature of traffic jam.   

This story was made possible with funding from the Kenya Impact Reporting Fellowship by the Aga Khan University’s Graduate School of Media and Communications.