Nairobi — Business owners in Eastleigh say they fear imminent closure of their shops as customers and traders continue to avoid the commercial hub, wary of the Kenyan government's security crackdown and terrorist threats.
Commercial activity in Eastleigh has dropped by 60% since the security crackdowns started in April, and more than 150,000 people who directly depended on businesses in the area to earn a living are now staring at an uncertain future, said Eastleigh Business Community Association chairman Hussein Mohammed.
"Things are bad," he told Sabahi. "Traders are stuck with massive stock against few buyers."
Eastleigh had thriving 24-hour businesses before the security operation started, Mohammed said. Now, however, after a series of terrorist attacks in Nairobi and the subsequent security crackdown resulting in mass arrests, residents are hesitant to be out in the streets.
Many traders have also left their business premises unoccupied.
"Who would have expected a then-busy and premium shopping mall such as Garissa Lodge to have so many vacant stalls?" Mohammed said. "Garissa Lodge and other malls have been struggling to attract new traders without success, and sadly, every day [the stalls] remain unoccupied means the owners are incurring huge losses in rental revenue."
In addition, he said, the police crackdown is sending the wrong message that Eastleigh is a safe haven for terrorists and criminals, thereby discouraging some non-Muslims from transacting business with Muslim traders.
Businesses struggle from drastic sales slump:
"I had several non-Muslim customers who I called immediately when I brought new duvets and bed sheets from Dubai, and they would come and buy many. But nowadays, they do not even pick up my phone calls," said Yahya Omar, 27, proprietor of Bahati Bazaar Store.
"There are bad days when I only sell five bed sheets, yet before the operation I sold more than 20 pieces daily and when clients were many, I extended operating hours to late into the night," he told Sabahi. "I have not seen positives from the crackdown because the government ended up releasing more than 3,000 people it had arrested in the swoop anyway."
Omar said previously his monthly earnings were 700,000 shillings ($8,000) on average, but by the end of April he had only earned 288,000 shillings ($3,300).
"This month I fear I will make even less because it is only a few days to end of the month yet I have [only] sold goods worth 216,000 shillings [$2,500]," he said.
Echoing Omar's concerns, Ahmed Ali Yusuf, 39, who owns a rug shop on Twelfth Avenue Street, says he fears he will not be able to raise the 50,000 shillings ($570) needed to pay rent on his shop this month.
"The operation did more harm than good," he told Sabahi. "My business has been badly affected."
Yusuf said most of his customers were Christians who preferred his imported rugs from Turkey because of their high quality and affordability, but they are no longer frequenting his shop.
Even non-Muslims with business in Eastleigh are feeling the pinch from dwindling sales.
"You cannot project how many customers you will get in a day anymore," said Francis Thuranira, 30, a Christian who owns a barbershop shop on Eighth Avenue Street.
"I had four employees but I released three by end of April to save on their salaries," he said.
"Before the crackdown, most of my clients were Muslims whom I waited for at night to close their businesses, but it seems they are too afraid to venture out at night. It is a daily struggle attracting new customers."
In previous months, the shop would have an average of 40 clients daily, but business has dropped drastically recently, with only about 15 clients daily, he said. "With each client paying for 100 shillings [$1.13] for a head shave, that was 4,000 shillings [$45] a day and 120,000 shillings [$1,365] a month," Thuranira said.
Thuranira said he regretted laying off his employees, some of whom had worked for him for five years, but it had to be done.
"When I am not earning, my employees are not earning too. We are all affected, but I hope by June things will brighten up, thus enabling me to recall those who will not have gotten jobs elsewhere," he said.
'Police have scared everyone off'
No one wants an encounter with the police, whether one has genuine documentation or not, said Isaack Hassan, 38, a second-hand shoes seller along Eastleigh's Eighth Avenue Street.
"Before the crackdown, this place was a beehive of activity," he said. "Hardworking entrepreneurs used to sell or buy during daytime and late into the night, but nowadays, most businesses close early while a few customers venture out at night."
Roseline Kariuki, 42, a bank manager in Eastleigh, said the security measures have also impacted banks.
"It seems police have scared everyone off -- even bank customers," she told Sabahi. "Most of our cashiers are idle. The long queues which were trademark of our good business in the banking hall are long gone."
Kariuki said she did not know if the operation was against undocumented immigrants, terrorists or the Somali business community. "What I can state confidently is that in April, the bank experienced massive panic withdrawals by customers fleeing from Eastleigh," she said.
Mohammed, the chairman of Eastleigh Business Community Association, said the government should step in and consider giving tax breaks to certain types of small businesses to give traders a boost.
"When they are not making enough money such as now, [tax incentives] would enable many small traders to meet expenses," he said. "Such a tax incentive would ensure many business continuity and stimulate business activity in Eastleigh."
"We also want government to declare Eastleigh safe so that the rest of Kenyans can resume coming to do business there," he added.
Kidero: Normalcy will return to Eastleigh soon
"Despite the prevailing gloomy business backdrop in Eastleigh, the county government encourages consumers not to reduce their expenditure or presence in Eastleigh because the place has not been designated by any authority as a no-go zone," Nairobi County Governor Evans Kidero told Sabahi.
The governor urged small and medium enterprises to continue with their business as the crackdowns are aimed at criminals and not genuine business enterprises. "I also ask traders to remain positive as my government looks for ways to help deflate negative publicity the business hub is attracting," he said.
Kidero said he wanted to support Eastleigh businesses by turning the neighbourhood into a 24-hour economy.
"This dream is actually on course because we have started with ongoing construction of key infrastructure, plus the upcoming installation of surveillance systems to make the place secure for night business operations," he said.
"It is just a matter of time before normalcy returns to Eastleigh," Kidero said.