Kenya: End of an Era As Tuskys Exits Nakuru, the Town Where It All Started

Tuskys Supermarket on Kenyatta Avenue in Nairobi (file photo).
21 January 2021

As she leans on a red vintage mailbox along Kenyatta Avenue in Nakuru town, the woman clasps her hands around her cheeks, in tears.

Ms Jacqueline Karanja is overcome with emotions, with the occasional tear dropping onto the hot tarmac and melting away.

She is among hundreds of Nakuru residents who watched from a distance, in disbelief, as troubled Tuskys Supermarket closed the town's last branch.

"It's a sad day for me. It's terrible. Tuskys is no more in Nakuru town. I can't believe it. My daughter was employed at the supermarket. She is now jobless," she says.

The closure is the proverbial last nail in the retailer's coffin, perhaps signifying the end of an era for the supermarket chain that began its story in the dusty township of Rongai some 40km from the town.

You see, Nakuru is where it all began back in 1985. Established by Mzee Joram Kamau as a small shop called Magic, it later evolved to Tusker Mattresses before rebranding to the Tuskys household brand name.

Once regarded as the pride of Nakuru, it had four branches in the town.

Now, with the last branch shut down, it almost feels like a final farewell to the Tuskys brand.

A sombre mood engulfed neighbouring businesses as sad-looking workers carted away what was left of the branch's electronic goods to a waiting lorry.

Tuskys' closure

The usually busy and chaotic Kenyatta Avenue, thanks to an unregulated army of boda- boda, tuktuk operators and taxis, was not the same on Tuesday.

Motorists slowed down to a crawl so they could witness its closure.

The loyalty that some residents felt towards the chain cannot be understated: Many residents came to Tuskys for their daily shopping and were caught unawares when they found the supermarket closed.

"This is sad. I was coming for shopping. I have been a loyal customer for the past 20 years and I had accumulated more than 10,000 points. It's sad to see Tuskys go down," one motorist said.

But perhaps the hardest hit by the closure are the taxi drivers, tuktuk and boda-boda operators, fruit sellers, parking boys and other small-scale traders who usually hover around the entrance looking for clients leaving the supermarket.

"Tuskys was my operational base. I depended on clients shopping at the supermarket and its closure will hit my business in a bad way," said John Kiarie, a taxi driver.

"Shoppers at the supermarket were my biggest clients. This is coming at a time when neighbouring businesses such as Java Coffee House, the giant hardware CK Patel and Choppies supermarket have also closed. This area now looks like a deserted graveyard. Most of the businesses that attracted clients are no more," said Mr Caleb Makori, a tuktuk operator.

"I feel like a second wave of coronavirus pandemic has hit me. I feel like a part of me has been taken away. The death of Tuskys signals the end of my business. I was supplying mandazi. I had employed three people who will be rendered jobless," said Ms Jane Naserian, who is among more than 3,000 suppliers who did business with the retailer across the country.

Family infighting

"Will Tuskys overcome these turbulent times? I pray to God that the chain overcomes these tribulations because this was not the wish and vision of the founder of the supermarket Mzee Kamau," said a fruit seller.

She added: "My livelihood directly depended on this supermarket. I had taken a loan in our chama (merry-go-round) and I don't how I will repay it."

Nakuru residents also offered some advice to owners running family businesses, and one customer could not hide his anger as he hit out at families messing up empires set up by their parents who toiled for years to ensure that they stand firm.

"Tuskys has been brought to its knees by greed and family infighting. They should borrow a leaf from Gilani's Supermarket which has stood the test of time and is still going strong yet it is a family business," said the angry resident.

"When Mzee Joram Kamau planted the seed in 1985, his vision was to see a thriving enterprise that would transform the lives of ordinary people as he came from a very humble background. He must be turning in his grave because a prosperous family which showed no signs of discord when he was alive has turned the seed of harmony and prosperity he planted into a seed of discord," said another resident of Rongai.

Mzee Kamau died in 2002, leaving behind perhaps one of the most successful family businesses in the country with a workforce of more than 6,000. However, this number is shrinking by the day as the troubled chain continues to close down branches.

Tuskys also inspired some former employees to start their own businesses after learning the ropes of the industry during their stints at the retailer.

"After working at the chain for several years, I gathered experience and I opened a small supermarket at Kiamunyi on the outskirts of Nakuru town and it is doing well thanks to the tips and skills of running the business which I gained while working at the Tuskys stores," said a former employee of the chain, who did not want to be named.

Dealt big blow

A trader who works opposite the supermarket said it had been an "incredible 40 years" since Tuskys opened its first branch in town, Magic, in 1983 along Pandit Nehru Road.

"This closure will affect the supply chain and the entire value chain. Supermarket retail business will never be the same again in Nakuru town. Tuskys was a giant and accomplished so much in this town. It will greatly be missed by local shoppers, traders and suppliers whose success could be attributed to the supermarket," said the trader.

It's not just residents who will be affected by the closure. The Nakuru county government has also been dealt a big blow as Tuskys was one of its biggest taxpayers and employed many locals.

"We shall lose a lot of revenue. They were paying single business permit, fire and safety permits among others. We're greatly impacted by the closure," said Raymond Komen, the county executive for Trade, Industrialisation, Co-operatives, Tourism and Wildlife.

"We're saddened by the closure of Tuskys coming after another giant, Nakumatt, which also started in Nakuru, closed shop ... This is the only supermarket that had four branches in town. This is a big blow. It was absorbing a lot of produce and products from local industries," added Mr Komen.

However, despite the sadness, there was one happy moment on the chain's last day of operation in Nakuru town. Residents were given a variety of foods such as bread, meat pies, buns, cakes and other foodstuffs as well as fresh products remaining on the shelves and their bakery.

"This bread I'm eating is like the last supper. Tuskys will not open again and I'm not happy. I'm a porter and I used to earn Sh200 per day carrying customers' luggage to their cars or the matatu terminus," said Peter Mucheru.

"I'm a reformed street boy and I invested in a roller for carrying luggage. I'm back to where I began. This is a big blow to me as the other supermarket next to Tuskys, Choppies and CK Patel Hardware, have also closed shop," said the former street boy.

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