“Maize is like life itself”
As night sheds its gown of darkness and the eyes of dawn flicker open at 5am, David Karanja takes the last sip from his cup of tea. He makes his way from his house to the nearest bus stop. Here, he catches a matatu that takes him to town, from where he walks to the Wakulima Market as the city centre stirs into wakefulness.
Built in 1966 to supply food to workers in the capital and their families, Wakulima sits cheek by jowl with the now ghostly Kenya Planters Cooperative Union warehouses on the seedier side of Haile Selassie Avenue. Although the fresh produce market was initially built to accommodate about 300 traders, today more than twice that number squeeze themselves into the space, buying and selling commodities like onions, tomatoes, potatoes, green bananas and green maize.
The fresh produce comes from diverse corners of the country, and sometimes from as far as Uganda and Tanzania. Most times, green maize is sourced from the Rift Valley and western Kenya.
By the time David gets to the market, tens of lorries are parked outside, taking over one of the lanes leading into the CBD. All are waiting to make their way into the market to deliver their supplies before workers get to the city centre.
“We buy from them,” says David, implying that on most days, he does not have to enter the market to buy the green maize that he roasts at the intersection of Fifth Parklands Avenue and Mtama Road, just behind the Aga Khan hospital. On average, David buys about 60 cobs daily.
“The price ranges from Sh10 to Sh12 for each when supplies are plentiful,” he says. However, prices can jump to a high of Sh25 when green maize is not in season or demand is higher than supply.
David’s charcoal burner is an improvisation at so many levels. The base is a one-metre-high concrete cylinder on which he has hoisted the circular burner lined with clay. A wire mesh separates the glowing charcoal chunks from the maize in various stages of roasting. Near his right hand is a piece of red plastic, which must have served as a tin cover in its earlier life. This is what David uses to fan the fire that keeps him in business every day. Nearest his left hand is a little broken knife which he uses to break the cobs. Hardly do his customers buy an entire cob. Often, he has to break the maize into two or three pieces. The smaller ones go for Sh10 each; an entire cob for Sh30, meaning that the buying price for each cob accounts for a third of his cost of sales.
Not too far from the harmless-looking knife is a red bowl, half full with ground pepper and half a lemon. This is what his customers use if and when they desire to add tang to the roasted maize. It is a value-add, and is optional.
“Most of my customers are people who are domestic workers in the homes of Asians,” says David. They stop by to buy his maize either on their way to or from work.
“Mornings and evenings are the best times for business,” he says, acknowledging that cold weather suits his business best because many passersby feel the need to eat roast maize to keep their bellies – and bodies – warm. Sales are lowest during the day and in hot weather.
Dressed in a pair of faded dark blue trousers, a grey shirt and brown Swede shoes, the clean-shaven David dons a navy blue apron with the words “Ismaili Volunteer” emblazoned in white. Nothing makes him stand out among the other small-scale business owners who have sandwiched his work station. Not even the blue outdoor umbrella that provides a roof for his business or the well-worn face mask that sits limply on his face. Everything about him and his business is laid back, but his customers keep stopping by, ever so briefly, to point at the cob of their choice. David wraps the orders in green maize leaves before handing over the orders. Some pay on the spot. Others promise to “see” him later. Some stop at the tea kiosk next to David’s work station to order a cup with which to enjoy the snack. Once his customers walk away, David rests his limbs on the bench behind his charcoal burner and leans against the wall, all the time keeping his eyes on the roasting maize.
“On a good day, I sell all my stock,” he says. “However, if it grows late and I have not sold all the maize, I have to give the remainder away because I cannot sell it the next day.”
David’s day ends at 7pm. That gives him enough time to get home before the 9pm curfew time imposed by the government and enforced by the police to slow down the spread of Coronavirus.
“This business is not bad. It gives me something to eat and you can feed your family,” he says though he declines to reveal the size of his family or where he lives. Part of the condition for the interview was that he would not be photographed.
“But you can take a picture of the maize.”
His worry is that too many players in the maize supply chain end up raising the cost of the staple in the city.
Often, the cost of maize meal becomes a political hot potato, making it necessary for the government to keep a stern eye on retail prices and adequate supplies, especially in towns. Occasionally, the Ministry of Agriculture subsidises the cost of maize to ensure that millers and retailers keep maize meal prices reasonably low.
“Nairobi ni shamba la mawe (concrete farm),” says David in his low, unhurried tone. “We do not grow food here. It is therefore important to treat farmers well because maize and maize flour are staple foods.
“Maize is like life itself,” he says.
By Ng’ang’a Mbugua, managing editor business daily.