When the Hub opened doors almost a decade ago, it was entering a tough mall market in Kenya. But the Hub was different; it carved its identity as the second mall in Nairobi to house a fitness centre. And not just any fitness facility – it boasted East Africa’s very first skateboard park! The uniqueness didn’t stop there. Imagine this – shoppers could stroll through the mall’s public areas with their dogs on leashes. And for fitness enthusiasts like me, the cherry on top was the full-service gym that came complete with an indoor swimming pool.
Fast forward to today, the Karen-based mall reaches out online through select stores selling niche products. Picture this: an Egyptian merchant offering top-notch, high-grade carpets from Persia; a Japanese sushi chef, who intriguingly claims to be Bruce Lee’s cousin; a French sports megabrand; and even dealers specializing in Peruvian and Brazilian human hair – all conveniently under one roof.
It’s nothing short of astounding, right? Distinct diversity and different cultures all housed in one place. The Hub Karen has remained a vibrant community center that features a premier shopping location, several restaurants, open spaces, adventurous experiences and a man-made lake and park for recreational adrenaline-pumping activities.
The Hub opened its doors in 2016 quickly becoming Nairobi’s jewel with its captivating architecture being centered around two main piazzas’ and it being an open-air facility. The expansive garden coupled with the man-made lake gives the restaurants an amazing view of the lake for its clientele.
In addition, it’s also home to the longest zip-line within a shopping mall setting in East Africa and commands a heavy presence of huge international brands such as LC Waikiki, KFC, Dominos, Burger King among similar others.
Chicken and egg
It is not clear what came first, but malls in Nairobi were cropping up as fast as new supermarket branches, as they chased after Nairobi’s sprawling real estates that indicated affluence.
At the time, a marker of success was securing one of the big local brands like Nakumatt and Tuskys or Naivas since the anchor tenant mainly determined the success of the behemoth real estate and footfall for other supporting brands, banks and eateries.
Then the anchor tenants collapsed, one after the other first Nakumatt, Tuskys, Shoprite, Deacons dragging down the fortune of retail spaces in Nairobi and bursting the Mall bubble.
Fortunately for The Hub, when it opened its new mall in the upmarket neighbourhood of Karen almost a decade ago, it went against the trend choosing Carrefour, an international French hypermarket chain, as its anchor tenant.
So while the Hub has managed to avoid the contagion of the retail collapse, it is hoping to hold out against the current decline in spending by shaping into a niche mall.
Fit to size
So when I got an invite from a colleague to come to experience the mall’s ambience, its diversity, adrenaline-filled activities and all it has to offer firsthand, I definitely didn’t hesitate to take up the offer. It seemed their PR had learned that just sending out releases on what new American or French stores had opened shop would not cut it. For this phase of growth, they needed their consumers to feel.
Our first stop would be a renowned shoe store called Heel to Toe. The store is home to a Kenyan-owned brand that operates a niche-centered business. Most of their clientele are people who struggle to get perfectly fitting shoes easily and experience discomfort or are even hurt by wearing normal-sized shoes hence their tagline “perfect fit shoes”.
Flatfooted people, the extremes in terms of sizes either too small or big (I was quite surprised to see a size 50 men’s shoes), and those with no specific sizes who happen to fall just somewhere in between the halves are all sorted whenever they pop up here.
They offer high-quality shoes and the best in terms of comfort but it is the niche model that sets them apart rather than the typically mass-market clientele malls used to offer.
“We serve a clientele that mainly consists of families who we inform once a consignment arrives. We look to fulfill our clientele’s needs and even started a line of kids’ school shoes upon request,” said Sabrina, the store manager as she was winding up prepping to point us in the right direction for our next stop.
I felt proud it was a Kenyan brand building its brand in this space, however, they import all of their products as no local manufacturer achieves their required standards in terms of quality and comfort.
And with imports, one would expect the selling prices would shoot to the roof given the current depreciation of the shilling. A visit to a Dubai-branded store quickly confirmed our suspicions and went further to remind us we were not their niche wallets.
When we got into Max Fashion marketed as a value cloth shopping Dubai brand we got the true impression of the “value” considering a plain black cotton T-shirt was selling for Kes3900. But again considering the location and the setting of the mall, probably that made more sense. It was more like a one-stop shop for all your upmarket taste for clothes, from kids, teenagers and adults.
The kind that would walk out into the next stop selling Silken Human Hair. A human wigs store was clearly not my forte since I heard a lot of new terms. Initially my thought on wigs was “ni kama tu kofia overpriced” but I was set to be schooled on Wigs 101.
Not all human hair is equal
We strolled into Silken Human Hair, a store dealing with human hair wigs and weaves. Their unique selling point were that it was the highest premium grade human hair from all over which clearly explained the wig prices which were over the roof. I was confused when I saw a wig retailing at Kes57,000, clearly, that’s not just “kofia overpriced”.
There were wigs made of Peruvian human hair which is apparently the most sought-after due to its amazing texture, low weight and its ability to last over a long time. Brazilian hair too was present but they preferred to use it on the shorter wigs.
That left me asking, do people not like wigs made from African Hair?
There were only two at most kinky wigs and my bet is it was Ethiopian due to its texture. So unfortunately, it looks like the Kamaus’ and Wanjikus’ with “nywele ndengus” have no place in the wig markets.
Interestingly, an answer I got from Trazy the store manager was men too also buy wigs for their own personal use.
“Yes, actually they do buy for themselves, not just their partners” That was it for me, I had gotten enough info on wigs for the first day and luckily our next stop was something relatable for me and most of you readers.
Cultural branding like ancient Persian carpet-making tapestry and Japanese traditional brew and cuisine was angling for a market in these high-spending crowds in large SUVs whose salaries were probably in dollars protecting them from the currency collapse in the rest of the economy.
Omar Carpets welcomed us warmly to his amazing collection of carpets and rugs from Egypt, Iran and Turkey among other Persian countries. Persian carpets are well known for their quality and designs, they add distinctive good decor to a place, be it a home or common area.
The carpets were of a high quality and were all made of cotton. The ones from Iran were mainly handmade making them pricier. The prices varied depending on the quality and size of the carpets.
As the day became more and more fulfilling, an interesting addition came up and we were set to visit a Sushi restaurant, Chiq Japanese restaurant, which would either be the best or the worst decision for the day.
Apparently, the Sushi chef was Bruce Lee’s cousin, how true that was I have no idea. Sushi and Sake are Japanese delicacies that are widely dined on globally.
Luckily, I had never gotten the guts to try out eating raw salmon but I guess we all have firsts. We walked through the processes of making the different sushi rolls with all the ingredients and how to make the Japanese liquor known as Sake.
In our case we made a California sushi roll, and now we got to the do-or-die part where we had to sample the different types of sushi.
If my mind had tried to imagine a taste for that pink stuff, it must have made such huge miscalculations that upon the taste of it, it could not reconcile whether I should down it or eject the foreign object in panic. It took courage to hold it in, I did not wish to fail the Samuari.
The more I chewed on the raw salmon and seaweed, the more the urge to puke became. It would be an exaggeration to say my life almost flashed before my eyes, but hey I’ll say it anyway.
All in all, some people enjoyed it and actually recommended it, I guess it’s an acquired taste or we all just have different tastes.
Read also: Nyar Sindo’s guide to a supermarket floor
Catching up with Kenyan brands
Another question that kept bugging me was, why is sushi highly-priced yet the meat is actually raw? There’s little to no cooking costs so why is it even pricier than Nyama Choma?
The reality is that the market will tend to value established brands mostly built by global companies and years of soft power by western capitals that have built currency around French Wine, Scottish Whisky and Italian Pizza. But we are slowly catching up.
Being someone who doesn’t try new foods often, I had gotten enough exposure for the next three months from one Sushi roll and now as we proceeded to our next stop I had to go reeling from the taste of raw salmon since water didn’t take it away it seems like I needed “kitu tamu” but coincidentally our next stop was a store known as Kitu Kali.
Custom tribal printed hoodies, shirts and shoes were the face of these magnificent stores. We had walked into Kitu Kali which was a Kenyan-owned and themed business.
If you’re looking for that authentic and stylish look while still wanting to ooze the Made in Kenya vibes don’t I have news for you? Kitu kali offers you a wide selection of attire to choose from all being unique and of amazing quality.
“We source materials locally, produce and manufacture ourselves then retail them at affordable prices to everyone” that’s what Beatrice had to say upon inquiry of how they get their products. To this point, everything just kept getting better.
But even as these dash of African print finds itself into recognizable merchandise, the reluctance by locals to secure branding rights over our unique relics has not stopped the global market from exploiting this branding gap.
Decathlon is a French multinational that prides itself in being the one-stop shop for anything dealing with sports boats of a jogging and running T-shirt line named “Kalenji ”.
Here, it’s quite a normal occurrence to bump into Kenyan athletes in the Rugby 15’s or Kenyan runners looking to upgrade their jogging shoes. They have only two stores locally with the other one being in Two Rivers. Over 70 sports are covered, from kayaking to camping to gym weights and so on.
They weren’t joking when they said that they actually have everything. In addition, they only sell their brands “The store has its own manufacturing and production operations and later they sell their products under their own different brands” Jackie, our host mentioned.
Malls are still about outdoor experiences
You’ve not gotten the full experience from Decathlon without some light exercises, luckily we’d use that as warm-up for our next activity at The Jump-Ke which was quite an adrenaline-filled experience.
We weren’t about to pass on experiencing the longest zipline in a mall setting. Considering I’ve had a fractured relationship with heights, I was at a crossroads. After seeing the safety measures in place and some brief training, it didn’t seem quite bad.
Ziplining across the mall, jumping onto airbags from absurdly high heights were clearly activities that left you feeling like a new person.
At one point during the airbag jumps, I thought I’d not land, the period in the air felt prolonged more like 10 seconds, I was shaking. That was both scary and exhilarating and definitely enough for the day in terms of activities and stops, however, my tummy had different expectations.
Savoan Harvest came through on that end an ambient dining location within the mall but somehow secluded and closer to the park. The food was quite delectable, they even had vegan burgers and Samosas, however, I wasn’t trying anything new soon after my earlier Sushi experience.
After the day’s experience, a realization was that you could go to a Mall and not experience its full offerings owing to the fact that I’d been here previously but didn’t get the full experience.
A constant in my head was Tunarudi lini tena? Clearly, even as malls now call for the more niche customers, one size that fits us all is whether our pockets will let us experience the outdoor fun the realtors felt we deserved.