How Mama Mbogas are surving the pandemic
Drops of dew condense on the kikapu as Grace walks in the 5 am chill to the market. “Normally”, she would have been doing this an hour before but the COVID restrictions have eaten into her time. She walks down Nakuru street to the marikiti market that is already buzzing with activity. Like Grace, mama mbogas from all over Nakuru are here to stock up on fresh produce for their kibandas (stalls) which are located all over the county and country.
Since time immemorial, mama mbogas have been a staple in the agricultural marketplace. The name mama mboga loosely translates to “mother of vegetables”. While the trade is also carried out by men, a larger population of the traders are women, hence the name.
A Community Powerhouse
Away from the hustle and bustle of the city, mama mbogas are a community safe space for numerous neighborhoods. They are the one stop shop for groceries for families and single people alike. In tough times, mama mbogas provide food on credit for these people. She is the place where people trust as a drop and pick station for various items including packages and keys. Women gather at these spots to talk about anything from politics to parenting and community issues. These women are a powerhouse.
As one of the most common and important points of access to food, the pandemic hit them fair and square, and people who depend on them by extension.
Before the pandemic, mama mbogas who operate stalls in the outskirts of the city would get to the markets between 4 am and 6 am to get a day or two worth of stock. However, there are mama mbogas who sell produce in bulk or have stalls in the main markets. These women often got in an hour earlier to take inventory and make products available for the smaller buyers. When the government announced the first case of Covid 19 on 12 March 2020, they soon followed up with the implementation of directives meant to protect the people, however, this was, and still is a tough nut to crack for people who depend on late nights and morning hours.
Battling the virus
Virginia Wawira operated a fruits stall in Bahati. The mother of three succumbed to COVID-19 in March 2021. She had been at the same stall for five years, a member a small roadside market community. Virginia was a woman in her late 50s and the virus was thorough with her. Her battle in the hospital raked up more than Ksh.2000,000 ( $18,500) in hospital bills that are still unpaid. Most mama mbogas do not have many zeroes in the bank and something this big can be financially crippling. Some of the mama mbogas around Kenya succumbed to the virus while some were rendered bankrupt in a matter of months. The blow was devastating to those who were unlucky enough to be infected. To make matters worse, the country’s universal medical cover National Hospital Insurance Cover (NHIF) announced that it would not cover hospital costs related to the pandemic. This is the only insurance most of these women can afford and it locked them out. Apart from the mental aspect, the women were battling the rippling effects of the pandemic.
As many people were thrown out of work in the pandemic, people started being entrepreneurial and one of the businesses that spread like wild fire was car boot grocery shops. From office people who were fired to those who were on rotation and half salaries and taxi drivers without work all took to selling groceries from their car boots. With a mobile shop that could easily move locations, the competition was stiff and relentless.
That’s not all, as the pandemic hit the thick of things, and as the normal became the abnormal, people almost entirely stopped physically going to the markets. They took to online suppliers to provide the produce for them. Online mama mbogas took onto the internet and social media to make fresh produce sales. Since the government had advised people to avoid crowded areas, only a fraction of people trickled through the markets.
Mama Austin is a mama mboga at the Nakuru Wakulima market. Due to overcrowding at the market, the county government moved the traders to the stadium area in order to achieve better social distancing. However, this drove them from the proximity of the city. This is where the online vendors got their limelight. They would take the risks and go to the market when people were too afraid to and deliver fresh produce at their doorsteps. Foreign e-commerce sites also make use of this time to add fresh produce onto their inventory.
As mama mbogas struggled to make ends meet, brokers and social media were ensuring Sukuma wiki and onions were a click away. Some of these women are not tech savvy at all and those who are a little acquitted could not keep up with the regular posting and online presence required to build an online presence.
“It felt like generations of us have worked to establish ourselves and the government could not even protect us.”, she said.
Loan apps and Shylocks
Alice Wanga has seen the economical side of the directives.
“This is one of the toughest times I have ever experienced in the business. I cannot operate normally and last year was brutal. We were barely getting by and I got into deep debt. I was introduced to these loan apps that have high interest rates. I didn’t have an option and to date, I still owe some of these apps money. I’m hoping we can stabilize and I can be able to pay the money back. ” Alice is not the only mama mboga who turned to look for financial aid in underhanded deals. One lady lamented how one of these apps called her mother telling her she had loans. “It was very embarrassing. They did not need to know I was taking loans to feed my family”
Mama mbogas are resilient. It comes with the territory. These women brave the harshest of conditions in their jobs. Their stalls are usually makeshift and weather elements can be cruel. They have weathered the worst storms, literally and metaphorically speaking. These women have masked up, sanitized and carried on shredding Sukuma wiki and selling vegetables to Kenyans. They have weathered a pandemic, inflations, city council askaris and any other obstacle.
These women have lined up and gotten vaccinated to keep their community and their customers safe. These women are still educating their kids, buying land and building homes. The pandemic might have weighed them down, but one thing about these women, they don’t stay down. They get up, pick up their kiondos and run their stalls.
This story was published with support from the International Women’s Media Foundation.