Food costs double as Arab crises hit Nairobi’s markets

A truck full of onions arrives at  the main produce market in Nairobi, Kenya. (Photographer: Brendan Bannon)

Hundreds of traders descend on Wakulima Market early each morning

Staple foods are twice the price they were at the start of 2011. Mike Pflanz hears how this is hurting traders and customers alike.

CITY CENTER, April 26, 2011 (Daily Dispatches) – It is not yet dawn but Wakulima Market is chaos. Bystanders duck as men carrying 150lb bags on their shoulders hiss past. Handcart pullers jostle for business in the fluorescent half-light. Vegetable trucks reverse blindly.

This is Nairobi’s largest wholesale farmers’ market. Suppliers who have often driven through the night from their fields strike deals with traders who then sell goods on to the city’s supermarkets, restaurants and small-scale market stalls.

But here, those deals and those trades are in trouble. Soaring food costs caused by increasing international oil prices driven by revolutions in North Africa, and Kenya’s weakening currency, are hitting these businessmen and women hard.

Elsewhere in Africa, this has caused riots. There are fears Nairobi could be next.

Bernard Kihanda comes here every morning to buy 110lb of watermelons, which he then loads into his truck and sells in the city’s upmarket suburbs. Prices at the wholesale market are up 29%.

“I have to pass that cost on to my customers,” he said, haggling for better prices as dawn began to lighten the sky. “Watermelons are not corn or milk, they are not essential foods. I know people will start to complain, and then where is my business?”

Three stalls down – the traders sit on crates with their wares spread on cardboard on the floor – Margaret Mwaura, selling mangoes, is already feeling the impact.

Mangos being sold at Wakulima market in Nairobi, Kenya. (Photographer: Brendan Bannon)

Mangoes on sale at Wakulima Market, where customers struggle to pay new high prices

“This stock I’ve had since Friday, and it’s still here now, it will go to waste if I don’t sell today,” she said. “Prices used to be 8¢ for each mango, now it’s 11¢. I am not able to charge my customers more, they have no money in their pockets. I am the one taking the loss.”

As the sun rose and immediately slipped beneath a blanket of low cloud, trader after trader came back to this common theme.

Mary Njeri, Jane Wanjiru and Elizabeth Nyambura, grandmothers all aged over 60, rise at 4am each day and come to Wakulima to buy a variety of goods to then sell door-to-door on housing estates ringing the city.

“Our customers complain, they cannot afford the high prices we have to ask, but we cannot buy the food here unless we pay those prices,” Njeri said.

“We are the ones making the loss. Especially because people are no longer buying exotic vegetables, they want only the basics, and they refuse to pay the new prices,” Wanjiru added.

Kenya’s staple food is corn, usually ground to flour and boiled into a kind of dense cake called ugali. On this, Kenya survives.

But the wholesale cost of a 250lb sack of green corn has risen from $40 in February to $70 today, a 75% increase, according to figures from Kenya’s Ministry of Agriculture.

Prices for potatoes, another staple, have doubled. Beans are up 34%, tomatoes by 20%. In a city like Nairobi, where the majority of households struggle by on less than $5 a day, such price hikes are crippling.

A porters hand on the roll bars of a truck delivering onions to Wakulima market in Naiorbi. (Photographer: Brendan Bannon)

A man hangs on in the back of a truck delivering onions to Wakulima Market

The Consumers’ Federation of Kenya, a watchdog protecting buyers’ interests, has planned demonstrations to protest at what it says is the government’s failure to help the country’s poorest.

“Fuel and food prices are fast becoming unbearable for the majority of Kenyans,” said Stephen Mutoro, the Federation’s secretary general.

Several excuses had been advanced, he said, from a weak Kenya Shilling, the high inflation rate and the Northern Africa and Arab world crises and their impact on oil prices, which trickle down to gas pumps across the country.

“But those are just excuses not because they are not valid but because there is little Kenya can do about them,” Mutoro said. “On the contrary, no one is talking about the internal factors of the high prices, from lack of political will, to outright corruption and institutional gross inefficiencies.”

These are potentially fighting words. Similar sharp statements in neighboring Uganda prompted mass demonstrations which led to police firing tear gas on protesters, many of whom were arrested.

In Wakulima market, few thought that Nairobi was yet ready to revolt.

But Rosemary Nyambura, who sells bundles of used plastic bags (prices up 50%), conceded that “we are all getting very frustrated”.

“Corn flour is almost double what it was only a few short months ago,” she said. “It’s just mathematics – I have the same money in my pocket, but food costs twice as much, so my family can eat half what it used to. Now we are taking only one meal a day. This is the reality of today.”


Related: Brendan’s full-size images from Wakulima Market


5 Responses to “Food costs double as Arab crises hit Nairobi’s markets”

  1. Dajanee' Parrish says:

    I complain about how “high” the cost of food is here in America, but it is nothing compared to what the people of Nairobi go through. It’s sad to see how oil prices dictate life everywhere. You guys are doing a great job and I commend you for your work. We never hear about these issues in mainstream news and it’s refreshing to read something that is actually news. I saw your exhibit today at St. Bonaventure University and it was nice to see the real Nairobi.

  2. Tim Schneider says:

    Checked out the exhibit at SBU yesterday. Pretty cool thing you’re doing to raise awareness and spread the word. Hopefully there’s more planned in the future

  3. admin says:

    Police using tear gas and rubber bullets to break up fresh demonstrations over rising prices. Some reports – unconfirmed – that three people are dead and in fact police using live rounds.

  4. Katharine H says:

    Last time there was a good harvest corn rotted in farmers’ sheds because it could not be brought to markets over poor roads. Now there’s shortages again…

  5. Raymond _P says:

    The cost of food here in America seems too high as well, but it is nothing compared to what the people of Nairobi go through. And with the knowlege of how bad the economy is here, its hard to image the things the people of Nairobi are dealing with. And on top of that gas prices are up to four dollars a gallon here. The economy today is simply out of control. Gas and food prices are actually changing lives for the worse everywhere. It’s evident that times have changed. The money that you make now would have gotten you so much more ten years ago. Its good to read a article that is actually putting this information, the truth, out there.