¬by Wendo Kamau
It is very likely that you have a piece of furniture from one of the numerous artisans based along Ngong road.
And while ‘Ngong road’ is not necessarily a specific address, it is a loose term used to describe the almost 4km stretch of artisans creating furniture that while at first glance looks different, is exactly the same. It is the ‘go-to’ place when looking for cheap(er) custom made furniture, although more often than not, the word ‘custom made’ falls way short of customer expectations. Because it is a squatter trading zone, it lacks basic sanitation facilities, waste management is wanting and you are likely to bump into random goats and stray dogs.
Yet, these characteristics hardly seem to define this community of micro entrepreneurs. Indeed, these artisans have continued to draw in admirers, customers and researchers, all curious to understand this ecosystem that seems to defy all odds.
And this is how I found myself here. I was on a mission to learn how to do business the Ngong road way. And while I took away plenty of lessons, these were the light bulb moments.
Driven by market demand
As you go from one small workshop to another, you tend to see the same products over and over again. But how can this possibly be profitable you ask? Aren’t they cannibalizing each other?
Apparently not. And the logic is quite straightforward. “We create products based on what the market wants. All these products you see here have been ordered over and over again” says Eunice, owner of Maatu Furniture Designs.
“But even so, aren’t you fighting for the same customers because you have the same products?” I ask
“Can you count the number of people that need a bed or chair or table?” Eunice asks in response. “We create simple designs that have mass appeal; among the rich, the poor, Africans, Europeans, schools, churches, offices…. we can’t finish all those customers.”
Competing on customer service
Ironical, right? That they compete on the very thing they are least known for. “But how?”, I asked Jose ‘mkubwa’, a lanky fellow who wore his dark glasses through the 10min chat. “We have similar products, we sell them next to each other, at more or less the same price” he said. “What makes that person buy from me and not from you? Ni vile tu nitaongea na yeye,” translated to mean ‘it’s how I will talk to the customer.’
Visibility is king
For Sammy Musyoki, being on Ngong road is a deliberate choice. He has operated his workshop/ showroom for the last 12 years and even though he has made enough money to move to a more appealing location, it is not on his list of priorities. “The reason I stay – and will continue to stay – is visibility. Visibility is king. People can see me. They can talk to me. They can buy from me. That is all that matters.”
Not for lack of choice
“Karibu customer” Esther Muindi welcomes me, using a wide sweep of her hand to indicate the width and breadth of her open air showroom. Under her arm is tucked a thick album crammed with amateurish looking photos. “If it’s not here (indicating her showroom), or here (pointing at the album) I will make it for you, no problem” she says, beaming with pride.
I couldn’t help but admire how well she had her bases covered. By offering multiple solutions, she was increasing the possibilities of a sale. Beyond that, she was also giving her customers a sense of control, which is priceless.
Jack Oduor makes life-size animal sculptures. He is a legend is these parts and is rumoured to be incredibly wealthy despite his laid back, almost shy persona.
I found him on a busy morning, supervising the packing and loading of his sculptures on a 40ft size container. “They are headed to the US”, he tells me.
When I ask about prices, I am genuinely surprised by the hefty price tags he mentions so casually. “Why are you surprised?” He asks, amused. “Because I am here by the road side so I should be cheap? People come here, they see recycled metal, basic tools and my run down workshop and immediately think ‘cheap!’. But I am not selling the metal, nor the tools, nor the shed. I am selling my skill and years of experience as a sculptor. And that is not cheap.”
Preparation is everything
Onditi is an apprentice who has been working in his brother-in-law’s metal workshop since November last year.
He is required to be at work by 7 am, 6 days a week. His first duty is to set up the ‘showroom’ which involves several back and forth trips to a metal shack a few hundred metres away. He has to carry these pieces and arrange them on their dusty patch of ground, making sure not to encroach on his neighbour’s territory.
He will then proceed to sit there the whole day, counting cars and staring at passersby. At 6.30pm, he will make the same number of trips, ensuring everything is packed safe for the night.
I try to imagine myself doing this routine on a daily basis and it is a tough call. “How can you do this all day, everyday? I ask him. “I don’t find it boring,” he says. “This is the preparation I have to do if I want to be seen. The nature of our business is that we attract customers from the road so if I don’t show up, there will be nothing to see and there will be no money to be made.”
As you may have guessed by now, this was, to say the least, a humbling experience. I came away with more than I had bargained for. As I went through the various interviews, Chimamanda’s TED talk, the danger of a single story replayed in my mind. It is tempting to define these artisans with broad, homogeneous strokes, concluding that they lack ambition, innovation, motivation.
Truth is, you would be far from the truth. Where we see lack of innovation, they see simple rules of supply and demand. Where we see competition, they see collective strength. Where we see poor product placement, they see an effective distribution strategy.
I am keen to go back. I suspect that I will learn more about business on these streets than in any class room.
¬Wendo Kamau is pursuing her MBA at USIU. She is particularly interested in informal businesses and how they adapt and shift across timelines. This article was derived from her thesis research.