The case of the incredible shrinking fritter: A report from Kenya's street stalls
Street food is shrinking — and along with it, the income earned by street vendors.
That's one of the many parts of Kenyan life affected by inflation.
The government says inflation isn't terrible at about 7%, but Nairobi economics professor X.N. Iraki says it's likely much higher. He notices it every time he fills up the car.
"I used to fill my car with about 5,000 shillings," Iraki says. Now, it's almost 8,000 shillings. That's the equivalent of a jump from about $42 to nearly $68.
"This is very significant. I have to now plan my trips when I'm going somewhere."
There have been three big shocks to the Kenyan economy, he says. It started with COVID. Then the war in Ukraine sent oil prices soaring. And now there's a historic drought and an election season, which, in Kenya, tend to be violent and contentious and bad for the economy.
"And everybody is feeling the effect," says Iraki.
Which brings us back to the street vendors of Nairobi.
James Nyayiemi sells fruit. He used to order from a county about a 6-hour drive away. The high cost of gas has made him switch to local markets. But prices are still high — he's paying more and charging more. He used to sell one banana for 7 Kenyan shillings — about 2 cents. Now the price is 12 shillings.
He's seeing "reduced traffic of customers" but is grateful for those loyal folks who "understand food prices have gone up and still pay me a visit at my stall." Although sometimes he has to skip lunch so he can afford a ride back home after a day's work.
Florence Odero keeps cooking oil hot in her big black pan to fry up fresh tilapia. Her expenses, she says, have shot up. A year ago, she was spending about $25 a month for a jerry can of cooking oil — that's about 5.2 gallons.
"I now part with about $50 to get one jerry can of cooking oil." adds Odero.
So prices are higher for her fish and for other street food.
Ken Bolo, who earns a living as a golf pro, bought a piece of cooked chicken for about $3 — up from $2.50 a year ago.
"I am now forced to sometimes skip lunch as a meal because it has now become out of reach — and I have a family that is waiting for me to bring something for their needs."
Javid Molonzi's mandazi stand is right next to a shop that sells live chickens. Every day he makes hundreds of mandazis. They're like fluffier donut holes that Kenyans eat on the go. Amid the bustle of the city, Molonzi carefully rolls out his dough.
The price of mandazis has been one of the few constants in Kenya lately. They're still about 4 cents a pop.
But there have been changes in his business plan. The price of flour and cooking oil have risen, so they have had to make some adjustments. He uses a sharp knife to cut two different sizes of dough.
Before, a mandazi could be a meal, but inflation means that the mandazis, while still delicious, have gotten significantly smaller. They've gone from being the size of a Big Mac to a teeny cheeseburger.
Are his customers complaining? "Very, very much," says Molonzi.
Complaints about inflation are a common refrain these days. Kenyans are seeing things they haven't seen in decades. In April, there was a fuel shortage that kept cars off the streets, and at the moment, getting U.S. dollars has become difficult and that makes buying imports harder and often more expensive. And the government has a history of being hands off. Kenyans are left to fend on their own.
The economist Iraki says it's made them resourceful.
"They have learned that you're on your own. So whether COVID comes, whether Ukraine comes, we have learned to be on ourselves, and that has forced us to become very resilient."
On the streets, Kenyans joke that cooking oil is so valuable, you need an armed escort when you score a liter. The mama mbgoas, the ladies who sell vegetables on the streets, say even the price of potatoes is up. Jane Nyeri says the potatoes come to Nairobi on trucks, and those trucks need increasingly expensive fuel.
She used to pay 1,800 shillings for a sack of potatoes. Now it's 3,500 to 4,000 shillings.
So how is she getting by?
Nyeri puts her hands up. What can she do?
All she can do, she says, is try to survive.
Thomas Bwire is a co-founder and editor at Habari Kibra, a news hub that focuses on reporting stories from the Kibera community. He previously worked as a radio journalist at Pamoja FM, a community-based radio station in Kibera, and was the 2019 first prize winner of Media Monitoring Africa's journalism awards for his reporting on children
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