Protect my tireless Mama Mboga from foreign e-commerce giants

Friday July 24 2020

A fruits and vegetable seller in Nyeri. PHOTO | JOSEPH KANYI | NMG


Maimuna, my Mama Mboga, the lady from whom our family buys fresh produce, now has few customers. “All of you are ordering your tomatoes and onions online,” she says, with a catch in her voice.

The name ‘Mama Mboga’ is coined from the trade of selling vegetables or mboga (in Kiswahili).

A phased reopening of Kenya was announced early this month after four months of coronavirus restrictions, that included a ban on movement in and out of Nairobi, Mombasa and Mandera counties. Prior to the lockdown, Maimuna bought her produce at 4am in the morning and opened her kibanda (makeshift stall) at 6am. But when a nationwide dusk-to-dawn curfew was imposed she could not ply her trade anymore.

How was Maimuna’s business devastated while those selling online were not?

In April, foreign-owned e-commerce platforms saw an opportunity that eventually grounded Maimuna’s business, described in a newspaper story as “expanding their distribution capacities” to sell fresh produce online “in the wake of movement restrictions as part of measures taken to contain the spread of coronavirus”.

This move was no doubt met with the approval of those who classify foreigners as “investors” even when many of these foreigners rarely bring in any meaningful much needed foreign capital.


Rather, they cunningly use local capital and other in-country resources, including casual labourers to operate.

So, we end up with a situation where these operators inject little or no foreign capital into our economy, yet we glorify them as “foreign investors” and sit idly by as they vanquish our small indigenous entrepreneurs.

The e-commerce platforms are now delivering fresh produce.

There was, predictably, not a squeak from those who should have been protecting the Mama Mboga’s confined by a curfew and lockdown, and needing a special permit to move around as their businesses were taken away by these Covid-19 beneficiaries.

Home delivered pre-packed bundles of the fresh produce Mama Mboga used to sell such as watermelon and onions are now a click away. This happened as Mama Mboga sat at home, worrying about lack of income whilst obeying government directives.

How I wish, at a time like this when the world is called to reimagine itself, that the government could create a mobile-based e-commerce platform run by Mama Mboga.

By using data to predict market trends, the livelihoods of Mama Mbogas, who have worked tirelessly to establish themselves in the agricultural value chain, would be saved.

It’s not difficult to do so. She already provides a reliable, daily market for farmers, buying in cash and not credit, is connected to supply chains and already communicates through technology such as WhatsApp with her suppliers and customers.

This approach will also support the vision of food security, creating significant convergences between aspiration and practice as these difficult times are going to be with us for some time.

Her earnings have raised children to greatness. Dr Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem, the former general secretary of the Pan-African Movement, who, coincidentally, filed a story about the Mama Mboga of Nairobi was raised by a Mama Mboga in Nigeria.

Tunnel vision

Tajudeen wrote of government policy threatening the survival of Mama Mboga across the continent because of an African elite embarrassed by the mass poverty but unwilling to provide leadership and appropriate policies to take Africans to prosperity.

He called this a tunnel vision of development, only looking at the welfare of the minority rich and powerful at the expense of the impoverished and powerless underclass who are only concerned about livelihood struggles.

Maimuna’s kibanda is our neighbourhood’s communal space. Children who arrive home from school before their parents, wait at Maimuna’s Kibanda. She offers them something to eat as they wait. We leave our house keys with Maimuna for visitors coming in our absence. Her kibanda, which knows no ethnic or racial division, is the place to catch up with local news. Maimuna extends this social capital to her suppliers.

For years, Maimuna earned a livelihood carrying farm produce on her back, selling from door to door. When her legs began to ache from walking long distances, she opened a kibanda and handed over to her daughter Halima, who now finds herself jobless too.

The extraordinary times we are living in call for extraordinary action. Variations of the edging out of Mama Mboga by foreign e-commerce giants may be found in other industries.

There is still time for the government at all levels to show extraordinary leadership on how Mama Mboga businesses can survive.

She has always been present in our lives to survive, create jobs, put food on the table and help alleviate poverty.

We must all be involved.

Nderitu is the author of Beyond Ethnicism. Mukami Kimathi, Mau Mau Woman Freedom Fighter and Kenya: Bridging Ethnic Divides,