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Crafts And Camaraderie On The Coast

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Durban’s farmers markets are a magnet for consumers and small businesses alike, boosting the informal economy in the sunny South African city.

Be it the cosy market at Umhlanga or the expansive variety market at Shongweni, the coastal city of Durban in South Africa seems to be the sunny hub for farmers markets and small business owners setting up impromptu trading venues.

Within minutes of arriving at the Umhlanga Farmers Market, it’s easy to see why it attracts a steady stream of shoppers, despite the cold, penetrating drizzle on a Durban morning. There’s a good selection of fresh produce and specialty foods, the vibe is lively and cheerful even sans music or entertainment, and traders offer friendly, personalized attention. It helps that the market is centrally located and in the open air, fringed on one side by coastal dune forest. A woman trading home-baked date muffins and peach tarts chats away as she holds down a tent flap until the wind fades long enough for her to tie it down, and her customers happily banter on until she’s able to serve them. Dogs drag their owners across the clearing to greet other dogs. And everything on display looks oven-fresh and appealing.

“There’s a great variety of food we wouldn’t normally get in supermarkets – like the special cheeses or the vegan cupcakes,” says the market’s owner Alexa McWilliams.

“These are traders who are working from home and have a talent.”

She took ownership of the market several years ago and maintains its “charismatic, informal feel” because she considers it an important platform for small businesses. She explains that the market is a success because of its regular traders. “We see some traders come and go because they expect to buy a Ferrari after one morning, but it’s the regular traders who have their regular customers. Consistency is the most important thing for a market”.

Kirsten Hughes, who trades fresh farm butter and specialty cheeses, relies almost entirely on markets for her income.

“Markets appeal to me because of the freedom – there’s a lot of work with sourcing the products but it’s not a nine-to-five job,” she says, while cutting a slab of a special artisanal wash-dried cheese. “I have regular customers, and they can’t get my products easily.” Her main trade is at Shongweni, with a significant proportion of it at Umhlanga.

The latter market’s newest trader, Houda Abiet, began to trade her homemade Mediterranean foods here only a few weeks back, as a marketing exercise. “It’s very interesting to see what people like and don’t like, and they’re inquisitive because they don’t know all my products. I always tell them – just taste, you don’t have to buy.”

McWilliams herself started her marinated olive business at this market. She says: “Markets worked better because it’s a niche product [I sell] – I make it by hand and I have a passion for it.” She grew her business over the years and now has a full-time shop, Olive-A-Twist in Ballito, but does not think she would have got to that level of sales if it were not for the markets.

“The markets will give beginners with a great idea a phenomenal platform,” she says.

“You get a diversity of people from all over, so it’s also a great testing ground. I would recommend it to anyone.”

Across the city, the Westville Farmers Market enjoys a steady flow of customers on Thursday mornings. Traders set up shop at the Jimmy Bellows Sports Field, alongside a protected riverine forest, with expansive trees shading their stalls. It’s a friendly space, and traders and shoppers are casually familiar with each other.

Here, there are only seven or eight stalls selling vegetables, eggs, home-baked cakes, honey and biltong. Clint Govender, owner of the market, trades organically-grown vegetables, eggs, and homemade biryani. It’s a family business, with his wife supplying the biryani, and the vegetables sourced from his uncle’s farm.

“Customers are looking here for the quality and the freshness, especially the eggs,” Govender says. “And we’re 40% cheaper than the shops.”

The market is about 20 years old, and several stallholders and shoppers refer to its “better days”, when there were many more traders and a wider variety of products.

Govender explains that over the years, many of the old stallholders passed away or relocated, and he hasn’t had success attracting new businesses.

“The traders don’t always understand that it takes time to build their clientele. Jaco, over there, has been here two years, but it took him maybe six months to build up his client base, and now it’s worth his while to come every week.”

Jaco Buyleveld sells plants and provides a blade-sharpening service. He keeps his business small by choice, operating only at the Westville and Umhlanga markets. Westville’s customers seem to be mainly pensioners dropping by in between their grandchildren’s school rounds, and Buyleveld speculates that this is because most of the younger residents are working outside of the area. He is not optimistic about the future of the market, saying, “Unless you get a younger customer base, the market is doomed.”

A few kilometers up the hill, also on Thursday mornings, the St. Agnes Fresh Produce Market is noticeably devoid of customers. It’s well-situated at a major intersection, with its stalls looking out onto the St. Agnes church’s gardens. There’s a better variety here than at Westville, but it feels like the traders are here for reasons other than hard cash.

Although he hasn’t made a sale yet today, John Phiri says that this market is worth his time for building a longer-term client base through orders. He trades leather products that he makes – caps, belts, wallets – here and at Umhlanga market as well as at Golden Hours, Bluff, and Durban’s craft/flea markets. Phiri’s income is mainly from these markets.

Umhlanga Farmers Market. Photo by Alexa McWilliams

He says: “Since I started my business, I’m enjoying the markets – I do enjoy talking to the customers. For sales, I prefer Bluff and Golden Hours. Flea markets are best because we expect thousands of people and we sell well.”

Sidney Oerter is the only trader who reports good sales here today. He trades specialty cheeses he sources from around South Africa, with the occasional import. He started his business a few months ago, and although he supplies a few restaurants, his main customer base is at the markets – Litchi Orchard, I Heart, and the brand-new Drummond Farmers Market. He explains: “Markets are an easy way to get into sales. We want to expand the business, maybe offer monthly hampers, but the markets are our entry point.”

Georgina Erasmus, who trades honey, eggs, organic coffee, and Madagascan bags, at a number of different markets, says that she will normally trial a new market for six to eight weeks before deciding whether to come back, although she’s been coming to St. Agnes since it started a year ago despite poor trade because, “it gets me out of the house and we love the church, and we also like some of the people who come here”. Her main trade is at Shongweni and she says confidently: “If you’re not selling at Shongweni, then there’s something wrong with your product.”

The line of traffic winding along the hills west of Durban every Saturday morning is testament to the popularity of Shongweni Farmers Market. Its customer base is around 4,500 on regular weeks, swelling considerably during the holidays.

Owner Christine Standeaven believes that it’s the variety on offer that makes it worthwhile for people across the age and income range to make the trek across the city. There’s also food, crafts, entertainment, as well as areas for relaxing.

“People come here to find items that are unique, and they love supporting people who are making a living for themselves,” says Standeaven. “They might get things cheaper in the stores, but they’ll rather come to a crafter and take the time to look for a special gift.”

She explains that the market started as a space where local farmers could sell directly to the public, with a bit of breakfast food, but she incorporated crafts and expanded the food section after five years when she found that they weren’t increasing their customer base. The intake doubled at that point. Just over two years ago, the market moved to its current location, with Standeaven building undercover stalls for every trader and concrete walkways to keep feet mud-free when it rained.

As she speaks, it becomes obvious that the market is successful because of her high sensitivity to the needs of both her traders and customers.

She says: “I can walk 15 to 16 kilometers on a Saturday morning. I greet every single stallholder, I look at what people are bringing in, and I check everything.” For example, Standeaven makes sure that catering equipment is clean on arrival, food vendors are constantly washing their hands, and there is cold storage for meat products. She has a team of cleaners speedily picking up litter and cleaning up after children and dog accidents.

And on the product side, she keeps an eye on trends and fashions, so that she can make sure that there are traders who can cater for the full variety of customers.

Standeaven says that about two thirds of Shongweni’s stallholders rely only on markets for their income. “I watch what people are bringing out of the market, and I like to see them carrying bags because I know the stallholders are happy. I need to create the best platform for my stallholders to want to stay in the market, so that I have an amazing outing for the people who are coming to buy at the market. And I want it like that every week.”

The I Heart Market in central Durban is also proving to be a strong platform for small businesses. It’s an arts and crafts market at the Moses Mabhida Stadium on the first Saturday of each month.

The market itself is a success story, having begun with 12 stalls outside the St Mary’s Church Hall in Windermere in 2008, and growing rapidly to 120 or so traders at its current location.

Says owner Anna Savage: “We knew a lot of creative people who were doing really interesting work – ceramicists, fashion designers, jewelry designers – but they didn’t have anywhere to sell. So the idea was to put together a market where for a small fee you could set up a mini shop, and start to build your customer base.”

I Heart’s Anna Savage

Savage curates the market strictly: “It’s about maintaining a standard of quality of product, and also a particular type of aesthetic. We accept only locally-produced products, but we also wanted products that are exceptional – things that are dynamic and interesting, that are ahead of the trends, but also that are viable, with appeal for a larger public and in the right price range.”

The market’s customer base is about 4,500, and collective sales for all traders average R460,000 ($32,500) at each market.

For about a quarter of the traders, sales at I Heart account for over 60% of their monthly income.

Duduzile Ngubane, a resident trader, says that it was through I Heart and other markets that she was able to grow her fashion business, which started as a hobby. Although she has a full-time shop, markets still account for about 40% of her income. Her line of fashionwear, Du Confidence, is made for “women who are confident”, as she says proudly. The range is casual and formal plus-size modernwear.

She explains: “I am bold, bright, feminine, and I’m a warm woman, so the work I do is mostly in bright colors. It’s a confident woman who can wear bright colors.”

Just recently, demand has grown enough for her to be able to focus on her business full-time.

Says Savage: “I do really think that by providing this platform, the market inspired people who wanted to do something different from their day jobs. It’s providing a place for small businesses to launch, and it makes me really excited when I see people doing well.”

– Rehana Dada

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We have grown past the stage of fairy-tale. As women, we have one common front and that is to succeed. We have to take the bull by the horn and make the change happen by ourselves.

– Folorunso Alakija, Billionaire Businesswoman

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“The best view comes after the hardest climb.”

– Unknown

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Covid-19 In Kenya: ‘We Are No Longer Dreaming’

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Kamweti wa Mutu with his two children; Charlie, 11, and Adia, 8, with their Golden Retriever, Nalia, pictured at their home in Nairobi; image supplied

Kenya is perhaps one of the quieter domains of the global Covid-19 pandemic. However, as its hold intensifies across the country, Kenyans, from all walks of life, have found themselves not only preparing for the worst but also taking stock of the impact it has already had on their lives.

By his own admission, Musa Esevwe, a 49-year-old sculptor and entrepreneur, had never, in his life, experienced trouble with his sleep. That is until Covid-19 arrived in his hometown, Nairobi, in mid-March.

Within the space of a week, a national curfew was announced via Presidential address. Not long after, as confirmed cases jumped to 91, a partial lockdown was imposed around the Nairobi Metropolitan Area, restricting the movement of people in to, and out of, the city.

Travel was tightly regulated and international flights temporarily suspended. The few who do manage to make it to the country, by road or sea, must endure a mandatory two-week quarantine, at the border, before they can obtain official approval to proceed to their final destination.

Meanwhile, inside Kenya’s borders, lives changed overnight. Intensive lockdown measures severely hampered trading for both informal vendors and businesses, causing upheaval in some areas. In April, small business owners clashed with police over the forced closure of their establishments, in Nyeri, a busy provincial hub in Central Kenya.

Schools have been shut since March and, while official numbers are yet to be published, thousands have lost their jobs and livelihoods. Those, still fortunate to be in employment, have had to transform their homes into offices.

“It is like a very bad dream that we are living in now. The happiness and security we once had has gone… we are no longer dreaming, even for those who can still sleep,” says Esevwe whose own business, which was heavily dependent on the disposable income of the middle class and occasional tourists, has been destroyed by the pandemic.

Along with Esevwe, among the hardest hit are the nation’s families, who, for months now, have been confined to their houses.

The lockdown period has been particularly difficult for Kamweti wa Mutu, an international development professional and amateur nature photographer, living in Nairobi. Currently out of work, and with his wife, now the family’s sole breadwinner, stationed in Tanzania, he’s had to play multiple roles to keep his household afloat.

“The quarantine order [on March 13] was sudden, but commendably prompt, meaning it was a somewhat tough transition getting our two children; Charlie, 11, and Adia, 8, settled into home-schooling routines. After a week, we [had to] put our house-help on leave, with some pay, so as not to place [any] undue risk on either her or us,” he says.

Prior to the pandemic, Mutu was actively looking for work. However, the economic turmoil set off by the virus is now a cause for concern.

“I have struggled to find full-time employment for a while [now] but my family has been very supportive with understanding and prayers. The kids have a good grasp of this, in light of the pandemic, but it’s not [yet] getting them anxious. As a household currently on one income, this aspect is a grave one. Most worrisome is my wife losing her post [because of the pandemic], or worse, one of our family members falling ill,” he continues.

Perhaps the most traumatic impact of Covid-19 on the family is their separation. With travel into Kenya currently restricted, Mutu’s wife won’t be able to return until her consultancy with an environmental organization in Tanzania concludes.

When she does, it will probably have to be by road as international flights are suspended. After crossing the border, she’ll have to spend 14 days at a quarantine center, receiving a special permit to enter Nairobi only once she tests negative for the virus.

While this has added an extra layer of anxiety to their situation, the family is choosing to focus on the bigger picture, insists Mutu.

“We have talked a bit about this, and what it would mean for a normal life, even beyond the current situation. However, we have not delved deeply into worst-case scenarios other than how Covid-19 is devastating other families and societies. We have stocked up on enough essentials including non-perishable foodstuffs, water, face-masks, and power to last us a while.”

Elsewhere in the city, Sophie O, who asked that we change her name for this report, is also finding life under lockdown a challenge. The 30-year-old Marketing Manager works for a major multinational in Nairobi and is doing her best to adapt to the ‘new normal’ of being based from home.

“It’s been quite difficult especially because I have three children; a nine-month old, a two-year-old and a six-year-old. It’s been hard for the two-year-old to understand that I am ‘at work’, he keeps barging into [work] calls and expecting us to play. Now, I have to keep my camera off during conference calls although ideally, as a standard, it would have to be on,” she says.

With schools now closed, and most students across the country taking classes virtually, many parents, especially those with younger children, are burdened with the added responsibility of home-schooling. In this, Ms O admits that she is struggling.

“Personally, I’ve really done my best just keeping track with all the lessons they have to do. I think probably if I didn’t have to be ‘at work’, I could have done a better job in terms of being there for my daughter but it’s quite a challenge. You have to work because work pays the bills and work also pays the school fees,” she says.

Factors, firmly out of her control, are also impacting her productivity.

“The practicalities of working from home, like having a workstation, I have had to figure out. But with the internet… some days it’s good, some days it’s bad, and some days you have a blackout and there’s nothing you can do!” she laments.

The experience of both these families hints at the wider setbacks being faced by businesses and the Kenyan economy, as a whole. From Nairobi, Edwin Macharia, Global Managing Partner at multinational advisory firm, Dalberg Advisors, has been leading a fortnightly webinar series advising African leaders and policymakers on how best to respond to the ongoing crisis. He insists that they must appreciate the severity of the pandemic’s impact and act accordingly.

“Our job [on the webinar] is to make sure that [leaders] are sufficiently shaken and begin acting appropriately. China bought the world a couple of weeks to prepare and get ‘ahead of the curve’ in terms of intervention but, unfortunately, that jolt wasn’t hard enough in some places. This is very quickly moving from being a health concern to actually being an economic concern,” Macharia warned attendees in early April.

At the time, despite relatively low levels of confirmed cases, African economies were already feeling the pinch with stock markets plummeting and currencies devalued. A few weeks later, as the threat escalated, the UN Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) declared that a funding gap of $100 billion needed to be filled in order for governments to battle the pandemic, and its consequences, across the continent.

“The long-term economic effects will become more apparent in the coming months. Inputs not available locally will be inaccessible due to tighter border controls, while markets, for producers serving several industries, will be diminished, leaving many households without a sustainable income,” predicts Macharia.

If they are to have any hope of success, Macharia emphasizes that responses to Covid-19 in Africa will have to be a collaborative effort.

“Flattening the curve demands that governments, institutions, and business leaders are intentional in how they implement their response strategies. Organizations will need to go beyond [their] usual business continuity planning while the public sector needs to re-model institutions in order to slow down the current trajectory of infections while ensuring long-term resilience.”

An example of these wider response strategies are already at work in a number of Kenyan hospitals. Dr Michael Mwachiro, Secretary-General at the Surgical Society of Kenya, is currently stationed at Tenwek Hospital, a faith-based teaching and referral hospital in Bomet County, 230 kilometers west of Nairobi. On May 13, the county recorded its first Covid-19 fatality, at Longisa Hospital, the only public referral hospital in the area.

“We’re now seeing more community-transferred cases in Kenya. I think the advantage that we may have had [compared to] other parts of the world is that we were watching as things were unfolding and, because of that, we had a bit more time to prepare [as a country], and put some measures in place. But if you read the news, or listen to the radio, you’ll hear people complaining that we should have intervened earlier but that’s a difficult thing [to do] if you look at how many stakeholders are involved along with the nature of our economy and public health system,” he says.

Part of these preparations, Mwachiro says, included immediately training the country’s health workers on Covid-19 procedures along with introducing measures preventing the movement of people from hotspots in major cities into rural Kenya, where a bulk of the population lives.

“Nairobi and Mombasa already have containment measures in place. The bigger concern is that, if Covid-19 moves out of the cities to other parts of the country, the effects would be much scarier. These [rural] areas are where the older people are, who are much more vulnerable.”

In addition to the supplementary training for medical personnel, some elective procedures and non-essential surgeries have been put on hold so that all available resources can be committed to fighting the virus at hospitals. However, besides preparedness, maintaining the morale of doctors and nurses will continue to be an ongoing concern throughout the crisis.

“We’ll have to deal with the levels of anxiety and motivation experienced by healthcare workers and first responders taking care of these patients. Doctors and nurses are human, too, and they are experiencing the same emotions as everyone else. You can imagine that, in as much as [their] families are worried about them, they, too, are also worried about their families, and themselves, as well,” he says.

Some medical professionals responding to the crisis, in parts of the country, have had to make the difficult decision to live apart from their families as they work to contain the virus. But the taxing nature of their work, coupled with extended periods of isolation, means that counseling and support services will need to be made available to them as the cases continue to rise.

“We’ll have to deal with the levels of anxiety and motivation experienced by healthcare workers and first responders taking care of these patients. Doctors and nurses are human, too, and they are experiencing the same emotions as everyone else. You can imagine that, in as much as [their] families are worried about them, they, too, are also worried about their families, and themselves, as well.”

As it stands, Kenya, like most of the continent, has not been as badly hit when compared to epicenters in Europe or North America. However, this may be due to the fact that the worst is still on its way. In May, the World Health Organization estimated that up to 190,000 Africans may be killed by the pandemic, at its peak.

With Covid-19 due to exert immense pressure on our public health systems, it does offer some important lessons for the future, explains Mwachiro.

“What this outbreak has brought about, for us in Africa, is [the fact] that we need to invest more in our healthcare systems. This has been said so many times… there have even been a number of strikes [in Kenya] by various stakeholders, all of them trying to highlight these issues. This is a good wake up call. I honestly believe that, if we had spent more on health [before the crisis], it would have gone a long way in helping us to be better prepared. Hopefully, once this [pandemic] resolves, we can keep the momentum going and we can continue looking inwardly for solutions.”

Naturally, Covid-19, with its grim predictions and disruption of lives, has many Kenyans worried about the future. Nevertheless, the challenges of the moment are being met in stride. Families have quickly adjusted to new ways of living while their leaders seek sage advice on how best to address the crisis, and doctors continue to make sacrifices, day in and day out, as they brace for the worst.

Perhaps, most important of all is that, in the pandemic’s wake, hope has become an obstinate presence in all quarters of Kenyan society.

– Marie Shabaya

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