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Eastleigh traders hit by coronavirus shock wave

Friday March 13, 2020

With its Somali traders, Eastleigh, a bustling suburb on the outskirts of Nairobi, is easily the small Somalia in Kenya.

But of late, in terms of business, Eastleigh has become the little China in Kenya.

As such, while the traders will try to convince you that the clothes and textiles that cost a fraction of the price in Nairobi’s uptown come from Dubai, the truth is that most of these come from China.

And so it is that while the government insists that there has not been a single coronavirus case in the country so far, in Eastleigh, the effects of the disease are already in town.

The shock waves are palpable.

Running out of stock

Abdifatah Hassan, a trader whose shop is right at the entrance of Tansim Shopping Mall, last placed an order from China in November 2019. It was delivered month later, and as usual, he thought the stock would last until March this year.

His calculation about the longevity of his investment was right; his plan that he would make the order this month not quite. While his stock still looks promising, he feels an urgent need to replenish.

He cannot.

“The factories are shut and there is nothing I can do about it,” he says, shrugging. There is a hint of desperation in his body language even as his face portrays a cheery businessman.

For a man who imports a 100 per cent of his stock from China, the coronavirus might not affect him directly, but it now threatens to drive him out of business.

Hassan is now afraid that the smaller wholesalers and retailers who buy from him will very soon deplete his stock.

They have been thronging his shop in panic buying as the situation in China continues to look bleak. Desperate,  he tried raising the prices, but they kept coming.

If they continue coming, he might have to look elsewhere to restock.

“May be Turkey-but they are very expensive,”he says.

In all his stock, the only product that is not Chinese is blankets that he buys from Uganda.

Abdalla Fuad, who also sells textiles inside Taisir Business Complex, received his last shipment from China on January 25. He too was supposed to make his second order this month.

But coronavirus has changed all that.

He too is watching apprehensively as the piles of textiles in his stock grow thinner and thinner. 

If they run out before coronavirus is tamed, he too will be in trouble. He will have nowhere to get cheap stock that has been keeping buyers coming to his shop, not even in Nairobi.

Further down the street, Abdirahman Bashir Ahmed sits pensively in his shop, peering over the low shelf at passersby, his eyes darting to his phone intermittently. He does not paint the picture of a very happy seller, and there is a good reason behind it.

Missed the flight

“I should have travelled to China in February,” he says.

“But I did not. My last shipment came in mid-January. Already, my stores are almost empty,” he says.

What he has left to sell is what is displayed on the shelves, hangers and mannequins that adorn his shop.

They are left-over, he says. His most appealing imports have all been bought. For what he is left with, Ahmed cannot hike prices.

“There is a lot of competition. There are a lot of traders out here. If I increase the prices, customers will visit another store and purchase the same cloth at a lower price,” he says.

So, what happens should the market in China remain closed in the coronavirus lockdown?

“I will close shop. I do not have alternatives,” he says.

Abdirahman stares at communication he received from a manufacturer in China. It indicates that the manufacturer cannot promise when stores will be open and supplies resume.

It is not just the textile traders who are feeling the pinch.

Ali Nurow, who sells shoes, sums up his predicament with one statement.

“There is no business,” he says.

More than 70 per cent of the shoes he sells come from China. He is feeling the sting of the coronavirus already, but the pain is nothing in comparison with the hurricane he expects will hit the markets if, or when, all stocks deplete.

Businessmen are in limbo, he says, and coming off a slow January, he does not expect March and April to be any better.

Beaten to the dock

Nurow was waiting to make orders in February, after Chinese businesses resumed from a New Year break.

But the coronavirus docked before he could.

“Only the traditional Indian brands can save us,” he says, suggesting that a revival of some Indian shoe companies could save the situation if the Chinese will not bring the coronavirus under control on time.

China is the world’s largest economy and when her manufacturing is hurt, the whole world feels the pain.

Coronavirus, which erupted in December, has now swept through some of China’s biggest trading partners as well, and an escalation of the situation could be turn out messy.

And as the call of the muezzin booms from towering minarets, only drowned by the voices of traders trying to attract clients, the dark shadow of coronavirus lurks in the narrow alleyways between malls.

The traders have not felt the full wrath of the disease, but they say they can feel it. 


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