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Originally Published: May 31, 2009

One September morning in 1939, hours before the Nazi invasion of Poland was relayed around the world via radio and telegraph, a first-generation South Asian father put years of hard work and planning to the test and moved his shop from Nairobi’s Ngara neighbourhood to what was then called Bazaar Street.

Ramji Jivraj Haria’s dream was to build a business that would, over time, and with the help of his sons, grow into something bigger and better. Maybe, the patriarch even thought of a commercial empire that would become his legacy and through which his family’s name would be remembered.

But on that first day of September, the man’s family was struggling with its own dilemma: would their small business weather the uncertain times ahead?

The little shop, commonly referred to as a duka, on Bazaar Street — the present day Biashara Street — survived World War II and prospered in the ensuing peace. And 70 years on, the family business continues under the stewardship of third-generation Madhukant Shah and his brother.

“If you are doing business, and everything else is in place and working, you wouldn’t want to move elsewhere,” Shah told Lifestyle, adding that since he was a little boy he understood that his fate was entwined with Haria’s Stamp Shop.

Small-scale merchant

But Shah and a few of his colleagues could be the last of the dukawallas — the small-scale merchant of Indian origin who typically sells spices, grain, textiles, curios, sweets, hardware and other merchandise from poorly-lit shops smelling of incense — as we know it.

The first-generation of dukawallas were the Indian coolies brought into East Africa by the colonial government in the late 1800s to build the Kenya-Uganda Railway but who chose to stay on and work as shopkeepers.

Over the years, the family businesses thrived and dominated Kenya’s commercial scene as they were passed down the generations.

On Nairobi’s Biashara Street they initially operated nearly all the shops. At a casual glance, the dukawallas may even appear to be a dying breed due to their dwindling numbers in the city and the proliferation of a new Kenyan small business mall called ‘‘Exhibition’’.

But in reality, the diminishing numbers of the dukawalla represent one of the most remarkable transformations in Kenya’s industrial and commercial development.

After decades of maintaining a low profile on Biashara Street, dukawallas have transformed themselves into modern businessmen amid a host of challenges.

“The evolution of the dukawallas began in the late 1960s,” says Swarn Sodi, a founding member of the Eastern Action Club for Africa (EACA), a 13-year-old organisation of businessmen of mostly South Asian origin that seeks to improve relations between Kenya’s South Asian community and other communities in the country through business and culture.

But with this evolution came the birth of another phenomenon that created a whole new social class in the country. In the immediate post-independence period many South Asian businessmen were evicted from their shops.

“The government came up with an ‘Africanisation’ programme which ended up making it difficult for Asians to own business premises in town. We had to look elsewhere,” says Sodi.

Shah, the Biashara street trader, says the Africanisation programme made it difficult for Asian-owned businesses to obtain or renew trading licences, sparking an exodus from the centre towards the outskirts of the city. The march from the CBD was eastward, and the Industrial Area was born.

“This was a blessing in disguise that ended up creating a host of multi-million-shilling industries that supported most of the country’s economy,” Sodi says.

And despite the fact that most dukawallas moved out of their traditional strongholds, he says, they didn’t sell their shops. They simply let them out to Africans who continued with the same businesses.

“They moved away, and in the late 1970s and early 1980s, got to another level in the production chain — owning factories,” Sodi says. By that time, the dukawallas had created the merchandise they needed and had outlets for the goods they manufactured.

“Cases have been told of dukawallas who transformed from small-scale pipe sellers along Kirinyaga Road living on the first storey of their business premises to multi-millionaires owning steel factories,” Sodi says.

The former small-scale shop owners had created the Industrial Area and now owned factories. They had outlets in their rented dukas that sold their goods. All that was left was to have a piece of the next level of business.

“They consolidated their funds and built banks. This signified the birth of the business empires many of the founding dukawallas dreamt of, and the aspirations of some of those who are still in the retail business,” Sodi says.

But the growth of dukawallas was not without setbacks. Other shop owners moved from the central business district to the city’s outskirts.

Years after his grandfather moved from Ngara into town, Bravin Jethwa, another surviving dukawalla, was moving in the opposite direction. Six mornings a week, Jethwa awakes in his office home, a flight of stairs above his shop, Vanza Outfitters on Ngara Road, Nairobi.

“Business has become a bit slow since I moved out of the city centre,” he says, recalling his days as a hugely successful tailor on Biashara Street. Jethwa is a second-generation Indian who inherited the business from his father.

He opens the grey metal grill to let the sun in, but his doors remain closed because he is not ready for business. There is one more thing that remains to be done before he begins to let in a drying stream of shoppers. In silence he lights candles and a few sticks of incense at an indoor shrine and remains in prayer for 15 minutes.

“This ensures I have a good day,” he says.

Two decades ago, his and many of the other South Asian-owned shops lined several streets in Nairobi’s central business district. Spice shops, garment shops, tailors, spare parts shops and the odd grain stores operated from as far uptown as Biashara Street to those at the lower end of Kirinyaga Road.

Although the dukawallas sold a variety of goods, they were united by a common thread — they were predominantly family-owned. And nearly all the businesses were passed down from generation to generation. This unity in purpose helped them confront whatever challenges that came along.

“Growing up in an Asian family that involved itself in business, you always knew the role you will have to play in the long run,” Sodi says, explaining that this ensured continuity in a family-run business.

“Even when one had six children, and all of them went to universities abroad or locally, two of them would eventually come back and help run the family business.”

When Jethwa’s aging father called upon him to take over the family business, he couldn’t refuse.

“I couldn’t say no to him. My time had come,” he says. But now he fears that his shop will go under because there will be no one to run the family’s tailoring business.

His son is studying information technology at a local university, and his daughter is studying medicine.

“It will be difficult to see them come back to making clothes. Nowadays, life offers them much more than awaits them at home. My shop can’t give them the life I want for them,” he says.

Shah is faced with a similar dilemma at his shop on Biashara Street.

“Most of us sent our children to pursue their careers. Now age has caught up with us and, though we have our own ideas of how we would move the family’s business forward, it would still be of an added advantage to us if our children joined in on it,” he says.

Shah’s preferred heir is his banker son. “I would be happy if he comes back to the business and moves it to new heights, but at the same time I respect his choices. He is charting his own path and, as a parent, I cannot do more than wish that success follows him wherever he goes.”

As a young man, Shah spent five years in Britain working as an accountant for various firms. Eventually he had to come back to the family business.

Some consider this perceived demise of the dukawalla as a natural progression of events.

“The demographics have changed. The world isn’t the same. We may have held on to tradition a few years too long, but the change has finally caught up with us,” says Amin Gwaderi, a city businessman and member of the EACA.

He says it is only natural that some of the family-owned businesses end up in someone else’s hands or close altogether.

“Most of these dukawallas are second-generation Asians in their twilight years who have highly educated children within or outside the country. The dukawallas are staring at a slow death.”

Gwaderi says the owners are looking for an exit strategy from what has been a part of their lives for as long as they can remember.

“Some of them will move overseas to other family members or to be near friends who relocated some years back. But the loyal will stay back even if they are forced to sell off some of their businesses due to the inability of coping with the demands in old age,” he says.

Relocating has not always been the best solution.

“I have seen former business partners my age leave Kenya for the US or the UK,” Jethwa says. “It has not always worked. Many eventually come back home heart broken.”

But not many traders of South Asian origin have stayed as true to their trade as Jethwa did. Even those who maintained their presence in the CBD eventually broadened their trade and ended up in other ventures.

“Change is inevitable. We cannot run our shops in the same way our fathers did and still be successful,” Shah says. “We always aspire to the next level from where our children can push on through to an even higher level.”

Even though times have changed, the dukawallas insist their businesses are not dying. They have simply grown up.

“Even with the advent of the exhibition malls, we still manage to hold our own,” says Shah. His shop is next to a new exhibition mall where the latest in men’s and women’s fashion is sold in a warren of small stalls. Haria’s Stamp Shop, on the contrary, prides itself in providing different coloured khangas, miniature flags and curios.

“Dukawallas know what people want and provide it for them. We give the variety many crave, be it in spice, clothing or artefacts. That is why we have been here for so long,” says Shah.

Sodi agrees. “If they were to close down, the dukawallas will do so on their own terms and not due to bad business since many do not depend entirely on the shop. They went out and built factories.

They have shops as outlets and even pulled together and built banks that finance all their expansion plans,” he says.

The face of the dukawalla may have changed to a less recognisable form, but business is still being conducted.

In the beginning, their fathers may have spent days worrying whether the gamble they took by going into business would eventually pay off. Many of the businesses have outlived their original owners.

But the heirs to the business empires have something else to worry about — who will sit at the head of the table when the time comes for them to pass on the family secrets?

When the coolies toiled away side by side with Africans on the building of the Kenya-Uganda Railway, they left behind something more than the Lunatic Express for their descendants.
“They provided a foundation on which their grandchildren could build empires,” Sodi says.

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