A day with a Nairobi slum food vendor

Mary Omweno picks a canister containing liquid bio-ethanol fuel and firmly fixes it on to a two-banner cooker on top of the table inside her food stall in N-market, Mountain View area, about 9 kilometers from Nairobi City.

It is a chilly morning, hawkers’ voices can be heard competing to clear the stock of the day. Few meters away, the shovels of road workers roar to life as they scoop and mix mortar ready to construct footpaths.

Omweno then turns on the cooker to warm chapati, githeri and beans for her customers who by now have started streaming in in their droves, engaging in politics of the day. At the stall’s door, more customers shield themselves from the scorching sun while they wait for their orders.

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Her food kiosk, located next to a busy market and an on-going road construction on Waiyaki Way in Kangemi, is a simple structure with corrugated iron walls, a dusty floor and wooden benches where his customers wait for their share. 

Nairobi Slum
on-going road construction on Waiyaki Way in Kangemi

And in a bid to maximize her sales potential and accommodate more customers, she has extended a polythene sheet to shade her customers from the hot sun or deluges associated with Kenya’s rainy season

By this time, the aroma from the brown chapatis and green grams (dengu), kept on piercing my nose with utter fury. The frothy bubbles forming on top of the meat at the corner of the room is mouthwatering too.

It is approaching lunch time and foot traffic is at its highest. The burner emits intense heat as construction workers, hawkers make their way to recoup energy after a hard day’s work. Unlike earlier when she relied on charcoal, today, the 33-year-old uses clean fuel which is environmentally friendly and cost effective.

She now cooks using liquid bio-ethanol fuel, which she recalls, “has helped her save up to Sh400 per day on fuel. I could spend Sh800 on charcoal before I switched to bio-ethanol cooking fuel.” 

The value offered by ‘kadogo food stalls’ is far more than just money, Omweno said. “I use the money to pay rent, buy food and pay school fees for my children, she says, taking her customers’ money.

Omweno’s switch to clean cooking fuel has made her food stall a hit. She smiles, “At this time of the day, we are always very busy. On a good day, the work is overwhelming. You need to be very fast or else you lose the customers.”

In Kenya, WHO puts the figure at more than 18,000 premature deaths every year linked to air pollution. Interestingly, research has shown that 80 percent of Kenyans who live in urban areas use charcoal for cooking and this puts a lot of pressure on the households due to respiratory-related diseases as well as adverse effects on forest cover.

Dirty air remains a leading risk factor for early death in Kenya. It is estimated that nearly a million people died from air pollution in Africa alone in 2016. Children, women, older adults and the poor were the most impacted.  

Switching to clean energy is a healthy move at protecting forests, which are the water towers that drive agricultural productivity.  

Just like other food vendors, the use of clean energy has accorded Omweno convenience and affordability in her cooking. 

“Today, burning charcoal is too expensive. I am unable to afford charcoal because the little that is smuggled in Kenya through Uganda is like hot cake among food kiosk owners. At times, it gets finished before it can reach us” explains Omweno.

The mother of three says her customers are happy too, “I love coming here because there is no smoke and you cannot even be disturbed by the sound when she is cooking,” says John one of her customer’s as he scoops beans from a tin plate.

And so how does she get her cooking fuel?” All I need to refill the cooking stove is a fuel canister. And I am able to buy fuel in small bundle sizes. In a day, for example, I refill for Sh200,” she says. 

Bio-ethanol uptake is still at its nascent stages this is due to a myriad of challenges including a 25 percent import tariff and 16 percent value-added tax. However, the Ministry of Energy’s policy commitment is loud.  

Her next move, she says, “Is to increase her business empire”.


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