Words by Tabea Scharrer & Neil Carrier | 25 Sep 2021

Nairobi has become a city of malls. After South Africa, Kenya is the largest shopping centre market in Africa. Built in 1983 and billed as a “city within a city,” the Sarit Centre was the first western-style mall in East and Central Africa. More such malls followed, notably in the last decade. All of these malls follow, more or less, the global model of the high-end consumerist leisure space, featuring formalised trade by commercial chains selling known brands for local elites and middle classes as well as tourists. The malls we focus on here are different.

Lacking the glamour of western-style shopping malls, “Somali” shopping centres have one or more floors with traders renting micro-stalls, some as small as a table. The markets are “Somali” in so far as they were introduced as a model by ethnic Somalis from Somalia and Kenya, and are linked to Somali trade networks. The model has since been taken up by non-Somali businesspeople as well, complicating their classification as “Somali”.

The Somali shopping centre evolved in the early 1990s following changes in the usage of urban space. Three parallel processes led to this change: the liberalization of the business sector, broader urbanization processes, and the migration of business people from Somalia to Kenyan cities as refugees.

The Nairobi suburb of Eastleigh is known for its substantial population of refugees; it is also a global commercial hub, whose 50 shopping centres are integrated into networks bringing cheap consumer goods from Asia to East Africa. Eastleigh has dramatically changed over the last two decades following the arrival of refugees from Somalia. Once a lower-middle class residential estate, it is now dominated by multi-storey shopping centres, hotels and residential apartments.

The evolution of the Somali shopping centre as a distinct model can be traced back to Garissa Lodge, a hotel occupied by Somalian refugees in the early 1990s. Some of the Somali lodgers brought with them trade experience from Mogadishu and were able to access flows of smuggled goods—especially clothes and electronics—coming from Dubai, through Somalia, into Kenya. They began trading these from their rooms, displaying them on their beds by day. Word gradually spread among Kenyans that cheap goods could be bought at Garissa Lodge, and the growing trade transformed the nature of the premises.

The markets are “Somali” in so far as they were introduced as a model by ethnic Somalis from Somalia and Kenya, and are linked to Somali trade networks

As demand for goods increased among Kenyans, other buildings in Eastleigh began to be used in similar ways. The increased demand for retail space by traders saw retail leasing become a highly lucrative enterprise. As space became even scarcer, new buildings were built. In most cases they were funded by advance payments from the prospective trader—payments known as “goodwill”. The aggregated payments provided enough for construction and a modest profit. These newer malls retained the older shopping centre formula, but incorporated features such as hotel space and mosques.

Very soon the model of the Somali shopping centre spread to other towns across Kenya, including Nakuru, northwest of Nairobi. The fourth largest city in Kenya, Nakuru is a regional centre positioned along the country’s main trading route. The first Somali shopping complex here opened in the centre of town, near the Jamia mosque, in 1995. It occupies a run-down two-storey lodge built in the 1970s. In the next couple of years three more Somali shopping centres opened in close proximity, all operated by Kenyan-Somalis. These buildings are single-storey and consist of long corridors from which the shops can be entered. Non-Somali tailors occupy spaces at the rear of the buildings. Many of the traders are as well not part of the Somali community.

Dubai Shopping Centre is the largest Somali retail space in Nakuru. Opened in 2010, it is also the first such purpose-built edifice in Nakuru. In its first year of operation, stores were spacious and the building exuded a touch of luxury. By year two shops were subdivided into smaller units and further outdoor stores were created around the building; extra retail space was also carved out of the inner corridors.

Eastleigh is significant to most of the traders in Nakuru as it functions as their distribution centre. Goods imported into Kenya by Somalis are sold wholesale at Eastleigh to traders from all over Kenya, many of them non-Somalis. This model has been taken up by non-Somali businesspeople too. Established in 1994, Freemark Limited subdivided the plenary hall at the Kenyatta International Conference Centre (KICC) into table-sized stalls; by the end of the 1990s, the subdivision trend had spread to many shops along Moi Avenue in central Nairobi. In other urban parts of Kenya similar developments took place, with newly constructed office buildings sometimes including “exhibition” stalls on the lower floors.

While open-air markets are held in public spaces, the Somali shopping centres are privately owned enterprises, often with a rather long chain of brokers, owners and complex network of leasers and sub-leasers. These retail businesses are marked by three spatial innovations: shopping centres are established in structures often built for other purposes (architectural repurposing), several small shops are created inside existing stores (retail density), and additional retail stores are established in common spaces inside and outside buildings (sprawl).

Despite occupying private spaces, Somali shopping centres operate more like open-air markets than western-style malls. Small-scale traders, who often work alone or have only one employee, typically run these stores. Their wares are often cheap; traders do not sell branded goods produced for and bought by the rich. The product offerings are not especially varied, and often traders cluster in one area selling similar items. Furthermore, the price setting inside Somali shopping centres resembles that noted by Clifford Geertz in 1978 in a “bazaar economy”, not the set-price model prevalent in western-style malls. In his 2011 book Ghetto at the Center of the World: Chungking Mansions, Hong Kong, Gordon Matthews describes the mall as the “epitome of the American Dream,” and typifies bazaars as “marts of low-end globalization”. In Kenya, the newly built Somali shopping centres adopt the image of the formalised western-style mall, in effect projecting the urban traders’ dreams of wealth and progress.

What distinguishes these shopping centres from markets and malls are their functional focus on processes of selling and buying. Markets are often open places where people meet. In some cases, they are used to stage political or religious rallies, and are therefore public arenas. Shopping malls, while not designed as public places, provide space for recreation, and urban dwellers appropriate the malls for uses other than consumption, re-making private spaces into public ones. By contrast, Somali shopping centres are, in many cases, highly specialized consumption spaces where the pragmatism of trade dominates. In Nakuru, there are no areas where people can eat or drink, or even sit down and chat—architectural researcher Hannah le Roux has described these as “slow spaces”. Their absence may partly be due to the location of slow spaces around the shopping centres in Nakuru, but we argue it is also an outcome of the intense economic usage of space.

The traders occupying these shopping centres face competition from hawkers selling goods on the street. The competition for customers can be fierce. In 2016, tensions between market traders and hawkers in Eastleigh resulted in the temporary closure of shopping centres in protest against the proliferating street trade. Despite the low overhead costs of hawkers, traders in the Somali shopping centres nonetheless enjoy significant custom. It is our contention that the Somali shopping-centre model is successful because it gives informality a room. Our understanding of informality is informed by Keith Hart, and here refers to a relative absence of regulation alongside many elements of uncertainty.

Informal business practices are entrenched in Kenya. The limited space in official public markets provided by the Kenyan administration prompted many people in the 1980s and 90s to work in informal economic structures. Structural adjustment programmes, which stymied the formal economy, and rapid urbanization contributed to the growth of the informal economy. The possibility of earning a living was met by a consumer demand for cheap goods.

The informal economy is noted for its precarity. In the 1980s, a time of political tension and heightened violence and insecurity, traders faced a worsening economic climate and arbitrary policies regarding street trade. Hawkers had to endure arrests and government-led demolitions of their stalls, as well as the criminal activities by various street gangs. The first Somali shopping centres opened in the early 1990s. They offered new commercial networks and a secure space—from police and thieves—for doing business. Goods could be secured inside shopping centres, which also provided protection against rain and sun. The stability of a shop also generates trust in shopkeepers: wholesalers are more likely to entrust goods on credit to someone with a physical shop than to a mobile hawker.

National and regional governments responded to this commercial development by building new public markets. Operating them proved difficult in many cases. In Nakuru, for instance, the construction of Wakulima and Nasher markets was overshadowed by corruption allegations. In contrast, the private shopping centres still flourish, creating an interlinkage of informal and formal ways of doing business. Over time some of these businesses have become more formalized: they are fully incorporated into the Kenyan retail landscape, though within their walls much business activity remains more or less informal.

Rents for micro-stalls in a Somali shopping centre are much lower than for a room-size shop in a western-style mall, and even with a relatively small investment it is possible to establish a respectable business in these shopping centres. While rising rents and “goodwill” payments have reduced the number of people able to lease these shops, the model of the Somali shopping centre offers many Kenyans otherwise excluded from the retail economy an opportunity to become small-business owners and shopkeepers.

Significantly, this change in the retail economy was not the result of governmental intervention or public planning, but of private investment by ordinary businesspeople. The model of the Somali shopping centre offers shopkeepers a secure but also accessible trading platform, a space to potentially prosper in the face of the uncertainty that accompanies informal economic practices.

Tabea Scharrer is a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, Halle,

Neil Carrier is a lecturer at the Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology, University of Oxford