" Kibera is full of entrepreneurs; so many that it's hard to decide whose story to tell and who best represents life in Kibera. The stories that we hear are often the rare tales of overnight success or the polar opposite - a failure and a 'lesson learned.' "
But there's a whole group in the middle that never make the headlines. Instead, they are making a daily living from a solid business, representing a core group of entrepreneurs who have neither made millions out of cents, nor squandered investments.
These "everyday entrepreneurs" work hard, in clever ways, building their success steadily over time.
They're a critical part of the discourse because they can teach us the most about the everyday challenges of micro-enterprise and offer valuable insights about how to grow the economies of slums at a broad level.
A picture of Kibera is not complete without them. So, let's get to know Dorphine and her family, and their story of how a small idea and a little risk grew into a solid family business.
Dorphine is the oldest of eight kids ranging from age 11 to 26, and her life and livelihood in Kibera are steeped in the family business.
Her parents came to Kibera in 1991 from Kisumu in search of work. Like many migrants, they couldn't find steady jobs, so after a few years they decided to create their own.
They began by selling mandazi (fried dough) on the road in front of their house because startup capital was low - one needs a big wok, oil, flour and a household charcoal stove.
Business was good for Dorphine's family, but there were lots of other people selling mandazi, too. Competition and low profit margins forced them to get creative, so they added fresh skuma (kale) to their offerings.
A few years later, with money they had saved from the mandazi business, they transformed part of their house into a small shop, selling vegetables as well as basic items like soap, soda, tissue, and cooking oil to the community.
The shop prospered but still, with a growing family and school fees, Dorphine's parents had their sight set on bigger business. They began to save again.
After two years of putting away a few shillings a day, they were able to open a small "hotel" (equivalent to a café) in 2007. The hotel was a big hit. Vumilia, the matriarch, has a gift for cooking and quickly established a loyal following.
And then the new road came - right through Vumilia's hotel. Prime Minister Raila Odinga had made a promise to his constituents to build a paved bypass road that reached from one end of Kibera to the other.
In order to build this massive piece of infrastructure within an existing grid of tiny alleyways and pedestrian roads, many buildings would have to be removed, and Dorphine's family's hotel was one of them.
This fate initially caused worry - how could the family earn enough income to support eight children and continue to pay school fees?
Soon, however, it became clear that the road could provide a new opportunity. Everyone within the road's path was given permission to find another spot within Kibera to resettle their home or business.
The road's right-of-way also freed up a new piece of previously unbuildable land adjacent to Vumilia's and along the path of the new cross-Kibera thoroughfare.
According to Dorphine, her family "grabbed the land immediately," and then "grabbed more." They built a new Vumilia's twice the size of the old one, complete with a paved sidewalk out front.
Today, Vumilia's is nearly always full and averages about 100 customers a day. There's still a lot of competition in the area, but Vumilia's has a prime location and, as Dorphine says, people come "because the food is clean and homemade by my mom."
Mom, by the way, still runs the place. All eight kids and Dorphine's dad also work there, rising at 4am so they can sell tea and mandazi to people on their way to work.
The older children have all finished Form 4 (the equivalent of high school senior year in the U.S.), gone on to earn advanced diplomas, and now work at Vumilia's full-time while they search the Nairobi job market for something "better."
The younger ones attend private school – there are no public schools in Kibera - and go straight to work at the hotel after school. After the rush, they do homework, and the family sits down at the table in the corner of the hotel to eat dinner together.
The siblings eventually retire to their house, which is connected to the hotel. The hotel stays open until 10 pm, seven days a week.
Being tied to the business means family members are always at the hotel, so they are always in Kibera. Suppliers come to them and they can sometimes go weeks without setting foot outside of Kibera.
Dorphine's parents were recently relocated to "upgraded" housing (described in my previous post), but this change has been difficult because the new housing is relatively far from their business (almost an hour by foot), and transportation consumes a lot of time and income.
Like many business owners in Kibera, Dorphine's family has made inroads toward financial stability, but challenges remain.
As Dorphine says, "When we sold skuma, we struggled; when we got our small shop we paid school fees but we were still struggling. Then came the first hotel and it was better but still a struggle, and now we have the big hotel and it is better, we're covering our expenses, but it's never enough."
Saturday, July 2, 2011