Gakoromone in Meru town is the location of the largest market in eastern Mount Kenya region. For several years the market was known for the wrong reasons, including insecurity and rampant crime.
However, it has lately gained popularity after a group of young men pioneered a thriving shoe making business where hundreds of businessmen from neighbouring counties source their products.
A tour of the section reserved for the shoe makers reveals a thriving Jua Kali sector where traders specialise in different roles such as design, cutting the leather to required sizes and joining it to make the product.
Gregory Muchairiri, the chairman of the more than 200 traders, said in the past customers did not venture into the market due to insecurity. “People feared to venture into these areas and we used to go without sales for several days but after we decided to collaborate with the police there is order and customers come from far and wide.
“We sell in wholesale to businessmen from Meru, Embu, Nanyuki and Isiolo,” he said.
Joel Mugambi, who started making shoes about 10 years ago, said he invested only Sh14,000 and bought 200 square feet of leather, threads and other tools.
At the on-set, he contended with low sales and at one point wanted to quit and venture into another business.
But today, his business is worth more than Sh400,000 and he buys leather in bulk from a tannery in Thika to sell it to other shoe makers.
“I buy at least 1,000 square feet of leather each month for sale to traders, each making at least five pairs of shoes daily,” said Mr Mugambi who has employed 10 workers, adding that the material costs more than Sh100,000. Asked how much he makes in a month, he said with a smile on his face: “This is Jua Kali and I don’t keep books but when I buy my stock I ensure it is not stolen. After selling everything I replenish it. This business is good because I cater for my family’s needs and I have no problem.”
One of his key customers, Patrick Mutwiri, said he buys stock worth Sh50,000 each week and makes up to Sh10,000 after selling them in his shop in Meru town.
“I have discovered that people like these shoes because they are durable and prices are attractive. I buy at wholesale and make up to Sh20,000 in a week during peak seasons when students go back to school and during Christmas,” he said.
The traders said their products are of such high quality that shop owners tell their customers the shoes are sourced from Ethiopia.
“Most people don’t want to say they buy shoes from us but we have no problem with that because it is their business strategy and we get the best deal considering our costs.
“Some time back one of us sold stock worth over Sh500,000 in two days,” said Mr Muchairiri.
Eric Kimathi, whose work is to design and cut leather into required sizes, said he earns Sh100 from each pair, making about 20 pairs in a day and earning an average of Sh7,000 each week.
According to Mr Muchiriri, they also take in students from youth polytechnics who they train and so far they have absorbed dozens of young men.
“When they come here we have to train them so that they get used to the job because in colleges they don’t get exposed a lot of practical work,” he said.
The traders plan to lobby the county government to improve working conditions at the sheds, including providing proper lighting to enable them work longer hours.
“At times we are overwhelmed with orders to the extent that we work until late but the problem is that this area is not properly lit. We want to make this a 24-hour business and employ more youth,” said Mr Muchairiri.