13 February 2018

Kenya: Nairobi's Car Wash Operators Feel Pinch of Drought

Drought-related water shortages in Nairobi has seen some of the city's commercial car wash operators squeezed between a rock and a hard place -- extra costs for water, and a decrease in the number of clients.

Consequently, their earnings have dropped, since this was not the time to raise charges; it is the time to cling to the few clients one has, sometimes by reducing the charges.

Yet others, who put in place more reliable water supplies, or chose more stable customer markets, are surviving unscathed.

The city's car wash businesses are now plotting varying courses depending on how well they catered for the impact of drought when they launched their operations.

In Nairobi West, car wash operator Daniel Ouma has seen his number of customers fall from 10 to six a day, due to water shortage, which forced him to stop using a high-pressure water pump to save the precious commodity.

"I spend two to three hours collecting water from vendors in the morning. During the rainy season, we received a constant supply of water, but with the biting drought this has changed, as we are now getting water two to three times a week," said Mr Ouma.

REDUCE WATER VOLUME

"I have reduced the volume of water used in the washing process from a maximum of 600 litres a day to about 350 litres."

His plight is echoed by almost all of the car washing businesses connected to municipal water, which is now in short supply.

According to the Nairobi Water and Sewerage Company, the city receives a supply of 505,000 cubic metres of water a day, against a demand of 760,000 cubic metres a day. As a result of the current shortfall, Mr Ouma is now earning an average of Sh700 to Sh950 a day, down from Sh1,000 to Sh1,500 during the rainy season.

In some areas, where car washing is considered more of a luxury, the dry season is also reducing the number of clients as cars get dirty more slowly in the drier conditions.

"In the dry season, car owners only have to deal with dust, which is easily wiped, therefore, they slow to washing their cars very two to three days, but in the rainy season, the muddy roads force them to wash their cars almost daily, which is good business for us," said John Maina, a car wash operator in Nairobi's Upper Hill area.

This seasonal fluctuation has forced Mr Maina to reduce his rates by 30 per cent from Sh200-Sh300 to Sh150-Sh200 in a bid to attract new clients, with his client numbers down by some 50 per cent this season and his profits by approximately 33 per cent.

"Last year, between May and September, I used to wash 15-20 cars in a day, but at the moment I wash an average of eight to 12 cars," he said.

BUYING WATER

Mr Maina also buys water from the Nairobi Water and Sewerage Company, paying an average of Sh1,000 a month, but this is now being rationed at least twice a week, meaning his team of six is often buying water from other vendors at one shilling per litre.

"It is important, therefore, to consider the location and resources such as water before setting up of a car wash," said John.

In this, the degree of the seasonal fluctuation varies by area. In Kitisuru, an affluent suburb in Nairobi's Westlands area, commercial car wash operators say business levels remain much the same now as in the rainy season.

Moreover, "since we source our water directly from the Thigiri stream, we experience no water problems," said Martin Munyiri, a car wash operator at Kitisuru Junction.

Martin dropped out of university in 2016 and ventured into the car wash business, teaming up with three friends, each of them contributing Sh10,000 each towards purchasing a second-hand car washing machine.

"We wash all types of vehicles, including motorbikes and canters. For a motorbike, we charge Sh80-Sh100, matatus (public service vehicles) go for Sh150-Sh300, canters for Sh600 to Sh1000, while small cars such as a Vitz fetch Sh150 to Sh250, although these prices sometimes depends on negotiations with the customers," said Martin.

"The business peaks on weekends, as many residents in the area are free and have enough time to visit us. Sometimes we wash up to 20 cars in a day with each of us taking home at least Sh1,500.

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