Gikomba dawn inferno destroys property worth millions

Traders watch helplessly as a blaze consumes part of Gikomba Market on June 23, 2015. The cause of the fire, which destroyed property worth millions of shillings, was not immediately established. PHOTO | JEFF ANGOTE
Traders watch helplessly as a blaze consumes part of Gikomba Market on June 23, 2015. The cause of the fire, which destroyed property worth millions of shillings, was not immediately established. PHOTO | JEFF ANGOTE 

An estimated 10,000 traders in Nairobi’s open-air Gikomba Market on Tuesday lost goods worth millions of shillings after an early morning fire burnt hundreds of business premises, including a local Family Bank branch.

Some of the traders managed to save part of their stock, but a huge part of the goods kept in stores at night were consumed by the inferno.

The market is divided into 15 sections hosting about 1,000 traders each. Ten sections were affected meaning more than three quarters of the market was destroyed.

Boniface Muigai, who chairs the traders’ association in the Gorofani section, said between 60 and 70 per cent of the market had been reduced to ashes, putting the livelihoods of 10,000 traders in the balance.

The damage caused by the fire goes beyond the face value of the goods destroyed because many of the traders had secured loans to finance their businesses and must continue making the repayments as agreed with the lenders. 

“Most traders have taken micro-loans to fund their businesses. A trader may have 10-20 bales of second hand clothes worth Sh200,000, all financed by a loan that must be paid,” Mr Muigai said, adding that the big traders may have lost huge stocks of up Sh7 million.

“I have a Youth Fund loan whose payment I must now seek to reschedule. I don’t know whether they will agree to extend the payment period to avoid blacklisting by the credit reference bureaus, which will make it hard for me to get a loan in future,” added another trader Damasen Tinega.

Norman Mudibo, a communications officer at Family Bank, confirmed that the lender’s satellite branch located in the expansive market had been burned, but the extent of the loss was yet to be quantified.

The branch, which is one of the three in the Gikomba area, was established to tap into the millions of shillings that change hands in the market every day.

Gikomba, which covers about 20 hectares, is Kenya’s biggest second-hand clothes and shoes market. It also acts as a distribution point for smaller markets countrywide.

It was not clear how long it would take for activity to resume in the market as some parts were still aflame at around mid-day.

“It would be helpful if those who have given us loans extend the repayment period. We are also asking the county government to help us rebuild our premises,” said Rose Wanjira, who lost goods worth Sh70,000.

Earlier in the year, City Hall gave traders at City Park Market Sh5 million to restart their businesses in the wake of a fire outbreak besides the Sh100 million spent to rebuild the stalls.

The Gikomba fire, which started in the wee hours of the morning took more than six hours to contain and had not been completely put out by 2pm.

Nairobi police boss Benson Kibui said the cause was unknown but investigations were on.

The fire is said to have started near a small building housing the Family Bank branch before spreading to an in-house generator that exploded.

Area Member of Parliament Yusuf Hassan asked for thorough investigations into the cause of the blaze, saying frequent fires at the market were not an accident.

“I want the CID (Directorate of Criminal Investigations) to investigate these fires because they are not normal fires. There are people intent on destroying the businesses and livelihoods of Gikomba people,” he said.

The MP asked City Hall to establish a fire station in Nairobi’s populous Eastlands area, saying that Eastleigh and Gikomba were among the emerging economic hubs that remain prone to fires.

This is the second fire incident in Gikomba this year coming after a smaller one in April.

The market has had fire incidents almost annually since 2010. No casualties were reported in Tuesday’s inferno.

City Hall authorities, however, blamed poor accessibility for the delayed response to the fire despite the presence of a large contingent of the county fire brigade, the National Youth Service and Kenya Defence Forces.

Mr Kibui said police had arrested six people who will be charged with looting.

On Tuesday, hundreds of youths added to the traders’ troubles after they took to dismantling the burned structures and carting away the scrap metal. They dipped the hot iron sheets and rods into the nearby Nairobi River to cool them down before carrying them away.