Emmanuel Mwendwa @PeopleDailyKe
With stalls draped in radiant African fabrics, leather products, beaded jewellery, curios and handicrafts, The Maasai Market has earned a reputation as a one stop shop for traditional wares whose motifs and designs are inherent to Kenya’s cultural diversity. The market is also a popular stop for tourists keen on acquiring souvenirs of their Kenyan safari.
For hundreds of small-scale traders and artisans that display their wares in the open air several days a week, the market has enabled them broaden their financial horizons and support livelihoods. David Khakasa Marakalu made a debut into the market as a trader in 1989 after quitting formal employment to explore his artistic side.
Though fully aware that his plunge into the informal sector would not be smooth sailing, the venture held the key to achieve entrepreneurial aspirations besides sharpening his business acumen. “I had done my ground work and identified specific products, often in constant demand. I would weave woolen and leather caps, before trying to make jewellery using recycled materials,” he recalls.
David points out that Maasai Market is listed globally among most renowned and famous open air markets. “Majority of tourists who purchase products here have prior information on basis of recommendations from friends or relatives’ previous visits to the market,” he says.
Popularly known as ‘King David’, he recollects how the market has evolved. Initially, a handful of Maasai women would sporadically converge to display and sell rare traditional handcrafts. Within months, traders from other communities began to bring assorted wares as well.
On numerous occasions, they would be dispersed by city council askaris as the venue was unlicensed. “The current market became established around 1986, when civic authorities consented to a ‘silent’ waiver in city by-laws.
They allowed mainly small scale women traders to showcase and sale products only on Saturdays at an open space opposite the General Post Office,” recalls King David.
At the time, he was an apprentice at the Utalii College’s design and printing department. His keenness and diligence on assigned duties and ability to learn fast drove him to explore possibilities of getting a more challenging job.
“I thrive best in an environment where my skills are utilised to the maximum,” notes the designer. So he quit his job and ventured into the business.
Being a creative artist, he experimented with various ideas, expanding the range of items he sold gradually.“We mainly use natural beads, dried seeds, carved pieces of bones or mould clay to improvise on unique designs.
The level of competitiveness here drives one to keep innovating to measure up and sustain a clientele base,” notes King David. Ensuring variety in products is crucial, particularly owing to steady influx into the sector over recent years by many retrenched from formal employment. “Some invest in the belief that having products in quantities guarantees immediate sales.
But repeat clients are keen on finesse, quality, creativity and originality,” he points out. Seasoned artisans have an edge over newcomers flooding the sector. And due to lack of skills, some opt to buy finished, at times substandard products for sale.
King David, however, has a bone to pick with the county and central governments for neglect to tap into and develop huge potential inherent in the open-air initiative.
“This market boasts of an enormous, untapped capacity to create employment opportunities and generate significant revenue linked to tourism. On average, foreign exchange in circulation on market days is vast, the annual turnover can add up to millions annually,” he remarks.
Despite their contribution to the economy, they face several challenges that inhibit their growth. “It is imperative to clarify artisans here are not hawkers per se.
Whereas traders sell finished or ready-made products likely imported from Dubai or China, Maasai Market displays original handcrafted items. We are producers, who deserve support and incentives to grow our business into micro or medium-scale enterprises,” he says .
There have been efforts to lobby for disfranchised creators – wood carvers, stone sculptors to artefact designers categorised as Jua Kali or informal workers’ rights; King David has been involved in setting up a Maasai Market Empowerment Trust.
“This non-profit making organisation’s key objective is to uplift living standards of curio crafts industry artisans. We registered as public charitable trust, with board of trustees drawn from sector or other strategic movements with similar ideals,” he notes.
The market on Saturday temporarily shut down following a standoff between traders and county government, which had increased levy from Sh50 to Sh1,000. The market was eventually re-opened after an agreement to pay Sh250 was reached.