The Africa House Ltd based in Harrogate, north Yorkshire in England, purchases fair trade soft furnishings and household accessories from 14 suppliers spread around Kenya. Naturally we have been very concerned about the well-being of our friends and suppliers in Kenya and the knock-on affect of the ongoing violence.
Regular contact with companies based in and around Nairobi has provided stark contrasts, which do little to re-assure us. Kamili Designs and Safaribead are companies based in Karen. They are run by English and Zimbabwean expats respectively who employ quite a number of Kenyans in production and administrative roles. Kamili Designs described Karen as "quiet" immediately following the election and post-election chaos elsewhere in the Capital. Staff were delayed in getting back to work after the elections as a result of the road blocks and transport disruption but were "back at work and keen to stay". Other observations indicated a shortage of some food staples in the local shops; a situation that has improved during the last couple of weeks.
Kamili Designs stated that there were no immediate issues regarding raw material supplies; a similar message was received from Safaribead. However, the owner of Safaribead, who experienced life in Zimbabwe until three years ago, told us she was checking her local network of friends and contacts before leaving Karen to visit suppliers, collect the children or go shopping. This failed to avoid her becoming involved in the riot on Ngong Road that followed the murder of Melitus Were outside his Westlands home. She was driving to Dagoretti Corner when angry protesters emerged and started throwing bricks and rubble at each other and passing vehicles. Luckily a handy piece of driving averted a more serious confrontation for her. Langata Link is now offering special driving courses to respond to and escape from aggressive crowds.
Discussions with the owner of One Way, whose kikoy products you see at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport and Mombasa airport duty free shops, highlights more mainstream concerns regarding the tribal issues. He suggests that the Kikuya and Luo clash has been coming for some time. Land being the key conflict area and the lack of constitutional reforms regarding land rights have stirred regional tribal conflict. He explains that there is very little "normal" business underway in the industrial area near the railway station. Employees found it difficult to commute as public transport is sporadic. While raw materials are arriving at the moment, concerns about future deliveries remains a worry.
A greater concern is his order book. Suppliers in the hotels and lodges around the country are not buying replacement stock for the normal tourist business. He feels that current trends will make it necessary to lay-off staff within four weeks. Worryingly for him, this is a trend that is repeated across the manufacturing zone in Nairobi. And the laid-off workers with nothing to do are replenishing riot squads both in the urban slums and in homes around the country. "One more month will determine whether Kenya can survive a continuation of disruption to what has been a progressive economic story, a rarity in Africa, or face a slide towards civil and economic calamity" he quotes in e-mail.
Some of his workers were returning from Naivasha last weekend in a Matatu and were stopped at a roadblock. ID cards were demanded by the group of youths on the roadblock. In the vehicle in front of their Matatu a Luo worker returning to Nairobi was identified by the Kikuyu youths, asked to confirm his tribe in a Luo dialect. In front of everyone else at the road block the kapangas came out and he was dragged from the car and hacked to death.
Mombasa based suppliers have spoken of the eerily quiet beach strip, hotels that are closed and a disappearing tourist market. Interestingly one supplier, normally only reactive in selling products to Africa House, has been e-mailing reduced rates for his product range and pleading for help in finding new markets..
Meanwhile a rural supplier in Kitui provides a contrast to the urban unrest. Continuing to provide sisal baskets through a Women's Co-operative for us to sell, she explains that the troubles are an embarrassment to her country and she is fed up with it all. "Lets get back to work" is her message from the depths of an otherwise troubled rural area. Knowing her, this is a typically pragmatic view that would be well considered at the negotiating table of Kibaki and Odinga.
The Africa House remains concerned that supplies will dwindle as the infrastructure and supply chain becomes dismantled. While there are fewer headlines on the BBC about Kenya it is easy to become hopeful that the peace talks are going to resolve everything.
Last week Africa House received our first order sent from Kenya since the election. A large parcel arrived just eight days after being posted in the Karen Post Office. This is comparatively quick and helped to reassure us that the system continues to work. In contrast a new supplier of ours on the Ngong Road has been out of touch for a nearly a month. We are hoping for her order of baskets but she is scared to leave her home to deliver the order. Dependent on us to keep her fledgling business moving in the right direction, we understand her total fear of leaving home in a taxi to get to the post office and home again. A simple task racked in risk just to keep her enterprise ticking.
For four years Kenya has been our "watertight" trading nation. No unusual problems have arisen and the growth of the economy has seen new sources developed for us to help sell on our website. Keeping in touch with suppliers gives a broad range of thoughts and theories. But as a business we are already looking for alternative supply sources thereby spreading our risk away from what has been a enterprising and positive market.