After arriving at 2am in Nairobi and getting only a few hours of sleep on Monday, two days later, I was finally starting to feel normal again. But when I heard Stella speak about her daily routine of getting up at 2am to get fresh produce and only closing her stall at 930pm, I simply felt ashamed. Not only was she gracious in explaining the unfair challenges which, as an informal vendor, she and her peers in Mukuru (an informal settlement in Nairobi) experience daily, she was perplexed that I would worry about her lack of sleep. “I’m used to it,” she reassured me.
Stella reminded me of the contradictions which come with living in cities of the Global South. While informality is the bedrock of many of our economies, the type of regulations local governments apply not only stifle the economy, they oppress those who are succeeding despite the hostile environment to which they have no choice but to ‘get used to it’.
I am in Nairobi taking part in a policy event about ‘urban food futures’ organized by TMG Think Tank and their Kenyan partners Muungano and Miramar Foundation. One of the core themes of the conference and the work they are doing here and in Cape Town is how informality shapes our cities and provides livelihoods.
The conference brings together actors in the food system, including government officials, civil society, food vendors like Stella, and academics. Hearing the interaction between Stella and government officials was both fascinating and distressing. It is as though there are two parallel universes: one in the county offices in Nairobi and another one on the streets of Mukuru.
This is certainly not unique to Nairobi. Indeed, in most cities, informal vendors work in precarious contexts, with little capital and under the heavy burden of the law; often enforced to the detriment of not just their business but the communities who depend on accessing goods affordably and conveniently. But to hear Stella’s personal account made it all the more real.
A young mother, Stella is fearlessly determined to make her business succeed. She started to trade during Covid after the factory where she worked closed. As I am embarking on building a new venture myself, I was curious to hear how she laid the foundations to start something she had no experience in. She explained that she was raised by a single mother who sold meals to office buildings in Nairobi. She recalled some of her mother’s business strategies and the rest, she figured out as she went.
Initially, she started selling meals she cooked at her stand but when ingredients got too expensive, she simplified her offering to fresh produce; namely greens, onions and for a while tomatoes, until they too became unaffordable.
She smiles as she talks about her 10 year old daughter who dreams of being a doctor, but also says that she worries constantly for her safety. Every morning, after doing her shopping, Stella returns home at 6am to prepare her child for school and in the afternoon takes her along to work because it is not safe for her to be home alone.
Stella is not only daring, she is strategic, both in her approach to her business as well as her own safety. She says that the evenings are normally fine as many people are returning home from work but early in the morning she often has to pay someone to walk her to the place where she takes public transport, and if she doesn’t have cash, she inspects the street on the spot and devises different routes.
Stella is clearly not only business savvy, she is street smart and based on how sharp she is despite her inadequate sleep patterns, mentally stronger than most people I know. She is literally innovating daily to survive; but as she made it abundantly clear, the system is stacked against her. I can’t help to think what would happen if that energy and wisdom was not restricted but supported, captured, and shared with others.
In fact, it makes me question the books about social enterprise I’m currently reading to get inspiration in my own journey. Ideas are often hailed as groundbreaking because they are written by important academics and business leaders; yet Stella holds the most incredible and valuable secrets of how to thrive in an inhospitable environment while keeping not only hope for her child but inspiring a whole community in the process.
Today, we enter day two of the conference amidst news that protests on the streets of Nairobi are likely to erupt again because of rising living costs. That tension is palpable in the room and outside the conference venue doors, making these conversations so crucial. Hopefully, they will not stay in words but in action to genuinely support people like Stella and in the process enable us all to learn from her.