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Negotiating a place in town. Street vending in Thika (Kenya)

Négocier sa place en ville. Vente de rue à Thika (Kenya)
Nathan Mwangi Kariuki et Sylvain Racaud


Cet article montre comment, dans un contexte précaire et conflictuel, des vendeurs négocient leur place en ville en s’appropriant des rues. Les rues marchandes sont l’objet de lutte de pouvoir entre les autorités locales et les vendeurs qui légitiment leur présence en s’appuyant sur des textes de lois nationaux. L’empilement et la discordance de textes caractérisent la régulation publique et un cadre institutionnel ambigu, avec des contradictions entre des textes locaux et des textes nationaux. Cette ambiguïté génère des conflits, également nourris par des écarts entre les textes et les pratiques quotidiennes, notamment illustrées par la petite corruption. Ces rues marchandes « informelles » illustrent la confrontation entre deux types de légitimité : celles des acteurs aux petits revenus et celle des promoteurs d’une modernité urbaine « globale ». Le vente de rue est un moyen de construire des identités, une vie sociale et un sens d’appartenance dans l’environnement précaire de villes africaines.

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The authors sincerely thank the two anonymous reviewers for their constructive and relevant remarks and bibliography advice. Later, they opened doors to other fields. The paper and the reflection of the two authors have progressed.


1Street vending plays a vital role in most countries' urban economies, especially those in the south, by providing self-employment, income to those practicing it, jobs to others, and making goods available to the public at a lower price. They sell different kinds of goods, such as second-hand clothes, vegetables, fruits, plastic goods, and various household necessities manufactured in small-scale or home-based industries. Bhowmik (2005) defines a street vendor as a person trading from the street and offering goods for sale to the public without having a permanent built-up structure from which to sell. Street vendors are self-employed workers in the informal economy who are either stationary or mobile: the street or location of the business may be outside enclosed premises or covered workspace on street pavements or sidewalks, but also at bus stops and in other public places.

2Street vendors tend to position themselves along the routes taken by urban dwellers who head for the bus stations to reach their homes on the outskirts after a day's work in the city. This can be seen in metropolises like Nairobi and medium-sized towns such as Thika, some forty kilometers north of the Kenyan capital. The integration of Thika, the capital of Kiambu County, into the Kenyan metropolitan area is primarily due to the Thika Superhighway, inaugurated in 2012. The city's population has proliferated, from 136,576 in 2009 to 279,429 in 2019. Every working day, the city attracts street vendors who take over the public space when the flow of CBD workers is heading for the bus stations. However, despite their massive daily presence, these vendors operate in a precarious environment because they are considered "informal."

3The main focus of this paper concerns how street vendors build a relationship with the State and legitimize their presence in urban spaces through their everyday practices. These street vendors are still considered unwanted elements in the city as they sell their merchandise on the pavements allocated for other land use. In many towns in Kenya and elsewhere, local authorities use local by-laws to legitimize their repressive policies, with street traders facing regular police harassment and evictions, which in turn increases the informal nature of street trading (Roever & Skinner, 2016). This means the street vendors must continue playing hide and seek with the local authority police to earn their livelihoods. Morange (2015) further adds that both the National government’s Economic Planning Strategy and the 1973 Metropolitan Growth Strategy recognized street trading as a significant source of livelihood that creates employment, but the City of Nairobi by-laws that were passed in 2007 seem to have made cosmetic updates to the colonial document of 1963 that was redundant. In addition, the Micro and Small Enterprise (MSE) Act of 2012 and the Cities, the Urban Areas Act of 2010, or Kenya’s blueprint Vision 2030 (National Development Plan), recognize that the informal sector and micro-enterprises should be supported: “The informal sector must be supported in ways that will raise productivity and distribution and increase jobs, owner’s incomes and public revenue” (Government of the Republic of Kenya 2007). The contradictions between the acts and the by-laws create an ambiguous institutional environment; the daily regulation of street trade derives its ambiguity from the contradictions of the national political and legislative frameworks and local policies (Racaud, 2018; Racaud et al., 2018). In addition, the practical norms of daily governance (Olivier de Sardan, 2008) reveal that local actors take advantage of these ambiguities; the daily petty corruption illustrates this.

4In order to tackle these challenges, street vendors show the ability to develop innovative ways to keep themselves on the streets. They use illegal and legal means to ensure their presence in the urban landscape. The empirical material for this study comes from surveys carried out in Thika between 2016 and 2021. This research involved 47 interviews with street vendors and 7-in-depth interviews with key informants: Association leaders of street vendors for Thika vendors association and stadium wall hawkers and formal traders like the chairperson of TDBA who owns a wholesale shop in the town together with the chairperson of Mukiriti formal market who sells new and second-hand shoes in the market-this leaders are involved in one way or the other with street vendors activities. The other interview involved the Member of the County Assembly (MCA) of the Township ward where Thika’s CBD is located. The other method was participant observation, as at one time, the researcher was involved in the trade and direct observation. The formal traders were purposefully selected. In-depth interviews were used to understand the existing relationship between the street vendors, shop owners, local authority officers, inhabitants, and customers. Observations were made to gain an understanding of the negotiation of spaces over some time.

5If a few interviews were carried out on the streets, i.e., in offices or bars, most of the interviews were done in the trading places, i.e., mainly in the streets and, to a lesser extent, in markets. Therefore, the conditions were relatively tricky as the researcher disturbed the trading operations, especially for evening street trading, which operates briefly. In addition, street traders could be evicted at any time and sometimes are not enthusiastic about discussing conflicts, notably between street vendors. The regular presence on the streets of the researcher enables them to surpass the constraints due to the daily precarious environment of street trading and the street traders to trust the researcher. From the angle of street vending, the paper addresses the actual governance of the streets in Kenya, which involves the State; it highlights some “practical norms”, i.e., some gaps on the one hand between national and local official norms and on the other hand between these official norms and what is going on the streets daily (Olivier de Sardan, 2008) which is notably revealed by corruption. The first part of the paper analyses the ambiguities in the regulatory framework. The second part deals with the political environment, while the third part scrutinizes the conflicts surrounding the use of streets in Thika.

Ambiguities in the Regulatory Framework

6Like many sub-counties in Kenya, street vending is banned in the public spaces of Thika Town (Gacihi, 2014). While the 2010 Constitution gives the citizens of Kenya power to be involved in the governance of their towns and public participation, the sub-county of Thika has taken a hardline stance to ban street vending in the CBD (Kimani et al., 2021). The informal trader is given some rights to participate in the public forum, especially regarding their livelihood activities. For example, Articles 196 (b) and 118 (b) note that the county assembly and parliament shall enhance public participation for all the assemblies and their committees. Article 69 (d) The State shall encourage public participation in managing, protecting, and conserving the environment. These articles give the informal trader, like any other Kenyan, the right to participate in matters that affect his livelihood. Unfortunately, most vendors are unaware of such rights. The county government officials take advantage of this ignorance and organize everything in the public space without the input of the street vendors.

7Another piece of legislation favoring street vending operations is the Urban Areas and Cities Act of 2011. It emphasizes that the act clearly outlines two issues regarding informal activities. Under section 13 (2c), a city board shall consist of not more than eleven members, six of whom shall be appointed through a competitive process by the county executive committee, with the approval of the county assembly. The members referred to in this subsection are leaders of the informal sector who are supposed to represent informal traders, though sometimes it may not be representative enough. The association is supposed to be at the forefront of representing matters affecting the informal sector, especially on how the city or municipality should support the street vendors.

8Secondly, under Objectives of integrated urban areas and city development planning section 36 (e) Every city and municipality established under this Act shall operate within the framework of integrated development planning, which shall nurture and promote the development of informal commercial activities in an orderly and sustainable manner, which means that the Urban Areas and Cities Act of 2011 will impact street vending activities in the town.

  • 1 Interview with Mr. O on 17th February 2020, at Mama-Ngina Garden, Thika e

9Although the same Constitution gives the devolved units (Counties) the power to enact laws through the County Government Act 2012, the street vendors who are part of the marginalized groups are protected by the Constitution and can seek redress to their grievances. The biggest challenge is that most street vendors are unaware of provisions in the Constitution that protect them and their rights to earn their livelihoods in urban areas. The sub-county government seems to have taken advantage of this ignorance and has not involved the street vendors in discussing their rights as part of public participation. Mr. O.1, a trader at Mama-Ngina Drive, is quick to comment on this issue:

The sub-county government does not involve us in some of the decisions taken in Thika Town. The Sub-County Government only involves the representative of TDBA [Thika District Business Association], who is in charge of the formal business, to discuss issues with street vendors. Most of these issues affect us directly, but according to the local authorities, our opinion is unimportant. The system already compromises the so-called representatives of the street vendors’ associations and, therefore, cannot purport to represent us.

10The street vendors are excluded from the decision of the perimeter of governance, which is not new. The exclusion of street vendors deciding on a new perimeter of governance was already at work in “Community Policing” Initiatives in Nairobi that shaped a safe environment for formal businesses and increased repression for street vendors (Ruteere & Pommerolle, 2003). Twenty years later, in Thika, it seems to be the pretty exact mechanism: more local governance brings more repression for the marginalized groups. The street vendors have been forced to work at the margins of the street as some of these local authority by-laws seem to maintain the colonial ideal of “cleaning” the city and having modern cities. It brings into focus issues to do with “rights to the city,” as expounded by Lefebvre (1991), because the street vendors have “lost” their urban citizenship, which guarantees them political, civil, cultural, and economic rights, as noted by Swider (2015). There seems to be an effort to align the local authority’s by-laws, the Constitution of Kenya 2010, and the County Government Act 2012, which makes harassment and eviction part of the daily life of a street vendor. In reality, the local by-laws seem to override the supreme constitution of the county, especially in terms of its implementation in urban spaces.

11The by-laws implemented by the Thika sub-county government also include applying the General Nuisance law formulated during the colonial era. The law permits city enforcement officers to arrest anyone, creating a “general nuisance” in public spaces (Hendriks, 2010). Under this law, hawking in public spaces is not allowed, and anyone found guilty can be arrested, fined, or their goods impounded, as Hendricks (2010) explained. Part of this law in section 163(a) states that… every municipal council, town council, and urban council shall subject to any other written law relating to it, have power-prohibit or control peddling, hawking and street trading and to control peddlers. This can be seen clearly in illustration 1

Illustration 1 - Section of the Local government by-law

Illustration 1 - Section of the Local government by-law

Source: KNCLR 2010

  • 2 Askaris is a Swahili word for police. In the context of this research, they represent law enforcers (...)

12Brown referred to this kind of governance as a system where other laws seem to “supersede” the constitution as ‘fuzzy city governance’ (2017: 28 as quoted by Kimani et al., 2021) because the two work differently. This contradiction, therefore, seems to disadvantage street vendors who will continue to pay bribes to the county council askaris2 to avoid being taken to court. The street vendors seem to have accepted their fate because of their ignorance of the law, especially what the new constitution states in their favor.

  • 3 Interview with baba S. was on 6th August 2019 at his farm in Gatanga, Muranga County.

13Some of the laws and their regulation are affecting street vending operations, forcing street vendors to adopt other ways of surviving, e.g., giving bribes, which take a chunk of the income they make from their businesses. According to Africa's uncensored media (2016), some corrupt local authority officers collect bribes of around $ 1 million a month from thousands of street vendors in the capital city of Kenya, Nairobi. The same trend is replicated in Thika, where county askaris seem to take bribes from street vendors. The street vendors confidently sell their goods in the streets, especially in the early afternoon, having given bribes to the Council askaris. Baba S.3, a street vendor involved in the selling passion of fruit, says

“… I am used to giving Ksh.50/-(0.39 euros) daily so that I can operate in my current location. The only caution county Askaris gives is that I should not change my vending location; otherwise, I will be taken to the cells and forget coming to Thika to undertake my business again.”

  • 4 Inspectorate officer- A senior officer within a county government who plays a crucial role in maint (...)

14The daily bribing shows that “Everyday corruption is a de facto, complexly regulated social activity, embedded in a set of tacit codes and practical norms. These tacit codes and practical norms are very different from public codes and official or legal norms” (Blundo & Sardan, 2006). This daily circulation of money results from a practical norm (Olivier de Sardan, 2008) established by local askaris and street vendors, as well as petty corruption. The by-laws implemented by the Thika sub-county government also include applying the General Nuisance law formulated during the colonial era. The law permits city enforcement officers to arrest anyone, creating a “general nuisance” in public spaces (Hendriks, 2010). Under this law, street vending in public spaces is not allowed, and anyone found guilty can be arrested, fined, or their goods impounded, as Hendricks (2010) explained. The Kiambu inspectorate4 officer confirms the application of this law while explaining how law and order are maintained in the urban spaces of Thika

We still use the general nuisance by-law when dealing with street vendors in Thika's urban spaces. As enforcement officers, we implement the law like any other law in our by-laws. However, we try to be diplomatic to minimize confrontations within the CBD.

15The local authority by-laws ignore the importance of the informal sector through policy frameworks such as Vision 2030 and the new Street Vendors and Street Vendors (Protection of Livelihood) Bill 2019. A keen look at the Micro and Small Enterprises Act of 2012 boosts the informal sector, while the Urban and Cities Act of 2011 does not criminalize street vending like the local authority’s by-laws. The preceding discussion shows how contradictory the by-laws are to other pieces of legislation, opening a loophole of being misused by the implementers to the disadvantage of street vendors (Lyons & Snoxell, 2005; Mitullah, 2005; Schlegel & Racaud, 2016). The crackdowns and harassment continue to be the norm for all street vendors trying to earn a living in urban spaces.

16The second set of laws is helpful in street vending. However, it seems to contradict the formulators and the beneficiaries, which are the street vendors and Street Vendors (Protection of Livelihood) Bill 20235. The bill is still in its second reading in the Senate. The legislation comprehensively addresses the issue of street vendors more than any other bill ever presented in parliament. As discussed in the earlier chapters, the bill seeks to recognize the rights of street vendors and regulate their activities in the urban space. Under this bill, street vending areas are designated and allow for public participation.

  • 6 Street Vendors Act, 2014. Thi (...)

17The bill looks similar in many clauses to the Street Vendors (Protection of Livelihood and Regulation of Street Vending) Act, 2014 of India6, which was fronted by the National Association of Street Vendors of India (NASVI). Like the Kenyan legislation, its primary objectives are to safeguard the rights of urban street vendors and regulate street vending activities. The difference between the two pieces of legislation is that unlike in India, where the bill originated from the street vendors and was sponsored by the vendors’ association, it was bottom–up. In Kenya, the Governor of Murang’a County, Hon. Mwangi Wairia, is credited with formulating the Street Vendors’ Bill. The implication is that street vendors in India can own the document because they formulate the bill based on their views. The Kenyan version of the bill is more “elitist”, as Kimani (2021) noted, because the formulator is a politician and may seem to be imposing the bill on street vendors. The street vendors seem unaware of the current bill, which is still pending in the Senate for the final reading. An interview with street vendors in Thika reveals that most are unaware of the bill, even among their association leaders.

18The bill is still pending in the Senate and is awaiting its third reading before it becomes law. It is hoped that the implementation will be done to the latter to save actors in the informal sector. The bill should not suffer the same fate of slow or non-implementation as some acts and sessional papers that came before the bill and have remained on shelves gathering dust. The lack of ownership by the people it intends to protect might render it ineffective because the street vendors will always think the politicians who formulated it will use it as a political tool. The street vendors know that the same politicians might use such bills to campaign during the elections to get votes. The bill was formulated in 2018, but by the end of 2021, the bill had yet to become an act of parliament, even after public participation on 30th July 2019.

19The Street Vendors and Hawkers (Protection of Livelihood) Bill 2019 might be the legislation that will likely bring some harmony to the informal sector. The cost-benefit analysis might favor the street vendors. Still, as mentioned earlier, the passing of the bill to law is long overdue, especially as the life of the current senate ends. The bill's implementation will ensure that street vendors have a voice in the public space and that the county government recognizes them.

20The ambiguity of the legal framework opens the door to arbitrariness to the detriment of street vendors. State actors, especially the askaris, deviate from the law to profit daily from petty corruption. These practical norms are informal and absent from public discourse, official moral rhetoric, and teaching (Olivier de Sardan, 2008: 15). These practical norms shed light on the workings of a state that makes informality a resource and are marked by arbitrariness and domination, integrated by those who dominate and those, more numerous and precarious, who are dominated. The Kenyan case echoes that of India, where implementing the Street Vendors Act encounters several difficulties. The informality of street vendors, and even more so their illegality, is a means of control and domination, placing them in a position of precariousness in the face of a predatory state and of dependence that is conducive to the perpetuation of clientelistic forms of power (Sales, 2016).

Political environment

21Politicians are usually major players in street vending flows. Heightened political activities in Kenya typically start one year before the general elections, with the climax being the swearing-in of the elected candidates. During this period, “roadside declarations” and promises are made to street vendors, which, unfortunately, most end up disappointed after elections. Influential politicians give clear directives on how street vendors should be treated within the CBD of any town during the election period to get votes from street vendors in return during the general elections. The same was experienced in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, during the run-up to the 2005 elections when the local authority intervention ceased, as Babere (2015) noted, due to political interference. After the elections in 2006, the street vendors selling on Congo Street in Dar es Salaam returned to spaces in Temeke Stereo and Makumbusho markets.

22The sub-county authority interventions against the activities of street vendors slacken off during this time. To secure positions such as Members of County Assemblies (MCA), Members of Parliament (MP), Senator, or even Governor, the politicians ignore by-laws governing urban areas temporarily for free appropriation by the street vendors. The politicians seem to “take over” CBD as the sub-county officials watch out helplessly because their positions in the local authority may be on the line if perceived to interfere with the operations of street vendors. During the run-up to the 2017 elections, the vendors were seen appropriating prime areas in Thika Town as early as 10:00 am, unlike during the standard period when most of them used to come at 6 or 7 pm to start their businesses, as seen in illustrations 2 and 3. This early appropriation of urban spaces ended immediately after the new County leadership was sworn into power.

Illustration 2 - Commercial Street, Thika

Illustration 2 - Commercial Street, Thika

Author: S. Racaud, 2016.

Illustration 3 - Kwame Nkrumah road, Thika

Illustration 3 - Kwame Nkrumah road, Thika

Author: S. Racaud, 2023.

23In this case, the politicians use street vendors as a resource during the voting season. They represent a mobile mass of voters, a target audience for politicians who can promise better working conditions, such as securing access to the streets. Therefore, it must be managed well (Schlegel, 2018). Thika Town has experienced these political influences, a perfect example in the 2017 general elections. Street vendor association leaders are closely connected to politicians who sometimes give them money to “buy” votes from their members. In this case, buying means bribing them to vote for them or their party. It becomes easier to do it among street vendors because they are gathered simultaneously in the same areas. It is, therefore, easy to mobilize them. Traders’ associations exist in Thika, including the Kenya National Alliance of Street Vendors and Street Vendors (KENASVIT), Thika Town Hawker’s Welfare, and Thika District Business Association (TDBA). The three have been negotiating with the sub-county government on the welfare of street vendors or traders in Thika Town.

24However, politicians also use street vendors when they hire them to cause mayhem in their opponents' campaigns. This causes fear and intimidation during the nomination/election day. Again, it becomes easy to mobilize street vendors because a more significant percentage of them is made up of the youth. This is similar to what Fourchard (2011) noted during the 2007 Nigerian election, where Union Road Transport Workers (NURTW) members were recruited as political thugs by Lamidi Adedibu to help rig the elections in favor of his new People’s Democratic Party (PDP) candidate for the governorship, who eventually won the election.

25Another way is when politicians convince street vendors to change their polling stations and vote within the jurisdiction of these politicians. This is done with a promise to be given money or allowed to have some vending spaces within the urban spaces. An example is given during an interview with the officer in charge of the Kiambu County inspectorate

During the campaign and run-up to the 2017 elections, politicians looking for votes pressured the CBD to allow street vendors. One politician is purported to have brought street vendors from Githurai and Kayole (both in Nairobi), promising them to undertake their business freely in Thika Town without harassment if they changed their voting center to Thika Town.

26In an interview with the current chairman of Moi market, he narrates how, during the campaign period, the former governor in Kiambu County promised the street vendors that he would give them space at Mama-Ngina Garden (Within Thika’s CBD) to undertake their daily activities. On the night of the 4th and 5th of September, the street vendors went to the said Garden to allocate the space, but their plan was aborted. There are various explanations as to why the plans flopped; the chairperson of Mukiriti market says that not all the stakeholders were involved in these plans. Another complaint was why “foreign” vendors (Githurai and Murang’a and surrounding towns) could be allocated space within Thika while they had spaces in their towns as market traders rallied to block street vendors from other towns. It focuses on the arguments about the city's rights (Lefebvre, 1974).

27This period also witnesses many voters being “exported” from one town to another to support a particular candidate. Kiambu County enforcement officers reveal that ….

Some people were “exported” as far as from Kayole and Githurai by a particular politician to register in Thika as voters (Kayole and Githurai 44 are both in Nairobi County). Therefore, most “exported” voters were technically taken to Thika and had been doing business in the town. Some were recruited in the Thika sub-county as enforcement officers from the two estates outside Kiambu County.

  • 7 Interview with Bidan on 13th December 2019 along Kisii Street

28The politics of the general elections and street vending are further elaborated by street vendors who sell along the junction between Commercial Street and Uhuru Street. Mr. B.7, a street vendor who sells blouses, comes from Kandara (Murang’a County) to Thika's streets and says…

“During elections, we usually have ample time to do our business in Thika Town. It is because politicians usually safeguard our interests, but we usually know it is for a short time. After the elections, we have to organize how we do our business because the local authority by-laws come into effect again. In 2017, we had a good time because we did our business without harassment, especially because we even had a repeat election for the president's seat after its nullification by Chief Justice Maraga”.

29Due to their size and network capacity, street vendors are essential social and political resources that must be mobilized during the election years. This necessity of the political elite to integrate the street vendors is a significant opportunity, as elections appear to be a system of integration for them (Racaud & Schlegel, 2016). Elections are also an opportunity to give street traders a recognized and accepted voice in the public arena that would not be available without the elections.

  • 8 Tuk-Tuk-Also known as an auto-rickshaw, is a three-wheeled motorized vehicle commonly used for shor (...)
  • 9 Boda boda is a type of motorcycle taxi commonly found in East Africa, particularly in countries lik (...)

30An interview with the Kiambu County inspectorates reveals that before the campaign in the run-up to the 2017 elections started, Thika Town was very organized. In the past, Boda-boda8 and Tuk-Tuk9 could not access the CBD and only stopped at some designated areas. Informal trading was restricted to authorized markets like Moi, Jamhuri, and Madaraka. The enforcement department applies general nuisance law to ensure law and order when dealing with public space governance. The traders can use the space before their shops but pay for it as an additional license. The shop owner can sublet the spaces to other people, such as relatives or friends. The officer in charge of the Kiambu County inspectorate says

During the campaign and run-up to the 2017 elections, politicians were pressured to allow street vendors into the CBD by looking for votes. One politician is purported to have brought street vendors from Githurai and Kayole, promising them to undertake their business freely in Thika Town without harassment. Mama-Ngina Garden had been allocated to some of these traders until the demonstrating Moi market traders disrupted the allocation, referring to the traders being assigned as “foreign.”

31The interview with the County inspectorate clearly shows politicians' influence on the running of a department in the County.

  • 10 MCA (Members of the County Assembly) - Plays a crucial role within the county governance structure.(...)

32The political actors seem to have much to do with the governance of urban spaces in Thika. The MCA10 appears to understand Kiambu's geopolitics, so he always fights to “protect” his vendors who will deliver the votes in the upcoming general elections. The stand that one has to be a voter within the Township ward seems to have attracted more people who have changed their voting areas to the ward to be “protected” by the MCA.

33The struggle over who has the significant political influence in Thika Town between the current governor and the area member of parliament gives room for street vendors who are allied to the two politicians to take advantage and trade freely. When the county council police harass one group, these street vendors call upon the politicians to get their liberty back. It is confirmed by the County inspectorate officers who cannot intervene for fear of losing their jobs, which are always on the line. The County inspectorate officer gives an example of how he was transferred to another Sub-County after the 2017 elections for a crackdown on street vendors during the political campaigns trying to get off some street vendors. The officer back in Thika feels uncomfortable dealing with street vendors.

Conflicts on the use of space in Thika

34From the results and findings obtained in Thika, it is clear that the issue of urban space causes many conflicts among different actors. This shows a few gaps between what is in the law or what is supposed to be done usually and the daily practices in this space. To understand this situation, Lefebvre (1991) analyses this by use of a Triad, as shown in illustration 4.

Illustration 4 -Lefebvre’s Triad

Illustration 4 -Lefebvre’s Triad

Source: Lefebvre, 1991 with author’s modification.

35In this Triad, Lefebvre describes representational space as the space of inhabitants and other users. It is the passively experienced space in which the imagination seeks to change and become appropriate. In this article, the inhabitants of Thika and formal traders who own shops are under this category. The physical buildings, private fields, parks, and roundabouts represent the space here. According to these actors, the public space should remain the same to maintain the aesthetic value of the Town. This represents how a street is supposed to appear in an ideal situation. Conflicts arise when the street vendors try to appropriate, whereas these spaces represent the beauty of Thika Town. Some of the residents criticized the management of the urban spaces in the town. According to the residents, the county council did not do enough to curb the influx of the large numbers of street vendors occupying the public spaces and congesting them.

36The second of Lefebvre’s triad is representations of Space. These conceptualized spaces of planners, scientists, urbanites, and local authorities tend towards a system of verbal signs (Lefebvre, 1991: 39). According to Martínez, Short, and Estrada (2018), governments encounter significant difficulties comprehending and incorporating public space regulations and strengthening the connections between local authorities' urban planning and vendors' spatial solutions. Urban planners, on the other hand, represent space, especially according to what is considered suitable for the city and making it more of an international city. Under this concept, the plans are drawn to attract foreign investors into the city. It brings into focus beautification programs that result in the eviction of informal traders in any town because these activities are not part of the plan. Thika is a perfect example of the beautification program that was carried out between 2018 and 2019. The program was a joint venture between the World Bank and the Kiambu County Government. The program was meant to undertake landscaping and facelift of a recreational park-Christina Garden, and the seven round-about within Thika’s CBD. Therefore, according to Lefebvre (1991), features underscored in such representations of space often serve as signifiers of prominent ideologies or representational spaces. These spaces conceived by the county government have become an action that has displaced some street vendors in countries like Kenya and specifically Thika Town (Lefebvre, 2000: 165; Harvey, 2001: 203).

37The third of Lefebvre’s triad is the spatial practice of society. Lefebvre (1991) defines daily reality as routine and urban reality by the routes and networks connecting private places for work and leisure. Street vendors react to the counter-appropriation of this space by redefining it and transforming it by imposing their zoning principles and positioning temporary objects such as pushcarts and sackcloth (Racaud, 2018). Therefore, street vendors transform prime locations from highly restricted spaces to areas where merchandise is sold, especially in the evening, to make a livelihood. As Ndung’u (2004) emphasizes, street vendors are not localizable but seek to create places conforming to abstract models. The local authorities can produce, tabulate, and impose these spaces when those operations take place, whereas the vendors can only use, manipulate, and divert these spaces in the streets (Tzamir, 1979: 85).

Conflicts between street vendors and the Local authorities on the beautification program

38This conflict entails two major projects instituted by the Kiambu County government designed to uplift Thika Town's image and attain city status, but this has resulted in the eviction of street vendors. Thika Town and other urban centers with a population of 250,000 are earmarked for upgrading into cities after President Uhuru Kenyatta signed the Urban Areas and Cities (Amendment) Bill 2017. The two major projects undertaken by the County Government of Kiambu are, first, the rehabilitation of the Christina Gardens together with the seven roundabouts within Thika’s CBD and, second, the construction of the modern markets in the various sub-counties of Kiambu. All roads within Thika’s CBD have been rehabilitated.

39Spire and Choplin (2018) comment on the beautification project in Accra, Ghana, and note that these significant urban transformations attempt to conform the city to international standards. Large urban and infrastructure projects are undertaken aimed at elites to achieve these objectives, and then “cleansing” operations of street vendors are conducted.

40While inspecting some of this project in Thika, the current governor of Kiambu says

“Thika will be the next city after Nakuru; therefore, a county government will try its best to meet all the requirements for a municipality to be elevated into a city. The county government is undertaking massive development projects to achieve this goal,” Hon. Nyoro said. The Kiambu Governor addressed the citizens of Thika during a visit to the major projects being funded by the county government. He also assured the citizens that there was a proposal to have an airport in Thika.

  • 11 Environmental Impact Assessment Project Report for the Proposed Landscaping, Beautification and Ins (...)

41This means that, like any other city in the world, Thika conforms to international standards for the elites and the cleansing operations of street vendors (Morange, 2015). According to the County records11, approximately 56.16 million shillings were allocated for the beautification program targeted at Christina Garden and seven Roundabout within the CBD. The beautification projects started in 2019 and were completed in early 2021. The seven roundabouts are between Uhuru Street, Kwame Nkrumah Street, Kenyatta Highway, and Thika Stadium. The project also covered Christina Wangari Gardens, located along Kenyatta Highway.

42Street vendors in Thika are not a homogeneous group. Jerome Monnet (2006) developed a framework to understand the various types of street vendors. Four characteristics define this framework. Using Jerome’s framework, in Thika, we first have street vendors who pay a monthly or yearly license to the sub-county of Thika. Most of these traders have semi-permanent structures to keep their products overnight. The second category of street vendors is those with temporary permits to undertake trading activities in areas like road reserves; a good example is vendors around Thika Stadium.

43The third category comprises vendors with no structures to sell; most display their goods on a bucket, gunny bags, or mats. These street vendors often “play hide and seek” with the county askaris because they have some intelligence that usually informs the rest of the impending crackdown. Thika's category is mainly found at the junction of the stadium road and the commercial street. These Street vendors typically start trading in the morning till evening and avoid paying any fee to the local authority. The last category of vendors is those who move into the streets and pavements in the evening, especially from 5 pm, and stay up until midnight. This category sells various goods such as shoes, clothes, fruits, and cooked food. Because of their nature of operations, these categories of street vendors have their rivalries and conflicts. Conflicts among them arise, especially regarding who has the right to operate in the urban spaces of Thika. The category with temporary permits to operate within the town always accuses the others who do not pay as “foreign” vendors. It, therefore, brings the issue of rights to the city.

44Most street vendors were evicted in 2019, mainly from Christina Gardens, to pave the way for the Beautification program. Different types of street vendors, including photographers based in Christina Gardens, were evicted. This crackdown was noted by the chairperson of TDBA while addressing West Pickers and the governor during World Environment Day. Street vendors operating illegal structures/kiosks were also given the notice to vacate from the CBD’s pavements, around Mama Ngina Garden and in front of people’s businesses pending the commencement of a World Bank project to improve and expand the town’s infrastructure and street lighting under the Nairobi Metropolitan infrastructure development program.

45The street vendors who used roundabouts as their evening trading areas were the most affected. It is similar to what was experienced in Ghana’s capital, Accra, after decongestion and beautification in the city Centre. (Spire and Choplin, 2018). Most of the street vendors have never returned to the park since 2019 because the planning of the new garden did not have the space for these vendors who had been displaced. The planned kiosks along the perimeter wall of Christina Gardens were never constructed, and therefore, the street vendors remained displaced.

46When beautification began, most street vendors working in these spaces had been displaced, i.e., in 2019. Some of the newly refurbished roundabouts have been “new homes” for the street families, like a roundabout between Temple Road, Upper Road, and Kwame Nkrumah Road off Kenya Revenue Authority offices in Thika.

47Apart from the beautification program, the second project involved the construction of modern markets in the sub-counties of Kiambu. These modern markets are meant to absorb all the street vendors who sell on the pavements, especially those from Ruiru, Juja, and Gatundu. The street vendors within Thika are supposed to either go to Moi Market, Jamhuri Market, or Madaraka Market, where another modern market is awaiting construction. Most of the markets are entirely different from the planned modern Madaraka market. Morange and Quentin (2017), on this topic (modern markets), examine the intricate dynamics of urban space transformation and its impact on traders in Cape Town, South Africa, and Quito, Ecuador. They show that neoliberal policies have led to significant changes in urban spaces by constructing modern markets, i.e., urban space reordering. As the urban spaces are being transformed, traders face challenges related to displacement, access, and livelihoods, which impact their daily lives and economic activities.

  • 12 interview with Robert on 31st March 2021at Juja modern Market

48Like the example of Machinga in Dar es Salaam and Lusaka, Zambia, Street vendors are still returning to the streets and shying away from these markets. Mr. R.12, a trader and transporter at Juja Modern Market, notes that

“Most traders shy away from these markets because they are far from Thika Town and, therefore, cannot get their regular customers, especially in the evening. So many traders prefer to sell their goods in the morning and then go to Thika in the afternoon, which is not far away. Secondly, there was a problem in the allocation of spaces; most of the traders were brought from elsewhere, and therefore, some preferred to go back to the streets in Thika.”

49The same fate was experienced for markets in Zambia, Tanzania, and even in Maendeleo; a new market in Kisumu (Racaud, 2018) seems to be repeated in Kiambu. The street vendors are still returning to the streets and leaving empty stalls in newly built modern markets like Juja. The biggest question is how the stakeholders cannot learn from these examples in other cities in Kenya and other countries. The roll-out of the new modern market continues and may end up as “white elephants” despite the vast amount of money pumped into such projects. It asks if the street vendors are contacted when such mega projects are approved and receive lots of funding from financial institutions like the World Bank. An interview with the chairperson of the Madaraka market reveals some concerns about the new markets…

“The problem with this modern market is that no one will be willing to occupy the first or second floor. The traders know that most customers will not be willing to go beyond the ground floor when shopping for their goods. In the Madaraka market, we prefer shades to multi-story markets with several floors. Sometimes, local authorities and other stakeholders undertake these projects without considering the opinions of street vendors who are meant to benefit from such projects. As the County government plans to construct a new modern Madaraka market, our plea is that our opinions will be considered”.

50The second question is why institutions such as the World Bank (and even the European Union for the Maendeleo market in Kisumu) fund such projects. What motivates funding such projects that seem to benefit a smaller population than was intended? For some actors, the funding has to continue to benefit personally from the procurements of materials to build these markets or corruptly siphon part of the money. For the financial institutions, could it be part of giving development loans at high interest rates to developing countries? The country may be forced to repay these loans, while the projects do not benefit most citizens. This type of state-led urban regeneration project, financed by international donors, illustrates neoliberal policies for the ordering of space and shows that the city is produced against certain city dwellers, in this case, street vendors, for the benefit of others: actors in the position of brokers or intermediaries in these projects (Morange & Spire, 2019), often state agents who see in these projects future economic rents.

Conflicts between Local Authorities and the Political Environment

51It is the second conflict in the streets of Thika, pitting the local authorities against the politicians. The politicians in this context include leaders elected every five years as Members of county assemblies (MCA), Members of parliament (MP), County women representatives, the senator, and the governor. The most affected departments by this conflict within the local authority are the Inspectorate or the enforcement department, the planning department, and the human resource department.

52Street vendors are the subject of conflict in the contest between local authorities and politicians, especially during the campaign before an election. During the campaign period, politicians typically view street vendors as political resources, as they can be manipulated to vote for them because of their big numbers. For politicians, mobilizing street vendors through their association leaders becomes straightforward as they are available at a specific time and place.

53Since the 2010 Kenyan Constitution brought devolution to the counties, the former local authorities are now under the County government. The head of the county government is the Governor (politician); therefore, the activities undertaken by the local authorities depend on the serving governor's whims. The members of the county assembly (MCA) have a stake in the operations of the local authorities because of their role in approving the heads of different ministries within the counties. Some of these vendors have organized themselves into associations where they elect their leaders to represent them. It, therefore, becomes easy for politicians to mobilize street vendors through their association leaders.

54During the campaigns for a general election, the crackdowns by the enforcement department (inspectorate) through the county askaris become less frequent. There is an increased number of street vendors who invade the streets of Thika compared to those previously strictly policed. Commercial Street is the epicenter of street vending, barely 150 meters from the police station and the Thika sub-county offices. Still, police and county officers cannot prevent street vendors from doing their business. Governors who head the Counties are also on a campaign trail during the election period, so it becomes challenging to authorize any crackdowns, or the leaders risk losing votes from the street vendors. In her paper, Mutengwa (2018) notes that aspiring candidates during any election are also significant actors in crackdowns. These candidates move aggressively to protect the street vendors in exchange for their votes. Kariuki (2022) further notes that street vendors become the political resources during these elections.

  • 13 The star newspaper 20th August 2017

55The second governor of Kiambu County promised street vendors reduction in a crackdown on his campaign trail in 2017. He also promised to exempt small traders from paying taxes13. It was to be implemented in the 100 days of his new administration. The politician was using this strategy to woo small businesses and street vendors for votes; this meant that the Finance department could not get enough revenue from license fees levied on small businesses. Lack of enough revenue implies that it hampers service delivery in the county, as noted by an officer in the finance department. Upon the governor's election overwhelmingly, the county government, through the finance department, had difficulty collecting the levies. The financial year 2018 saw frequent crackdowns by County Askaris on small enterprises, forcing them to pay taxes as the governor seemed to have forgotten the promises made during the campaign period. Unfulfilled promises are the order of the day once the politicians assume power long after the elections, as it becomes business as usual again.

56Another unfulfilled promise was an attempted allocation of street vendors at Mama-Ngina Garden; other traders fought it from the formal markets in Thika, especially Moi Market. The street vendors attempted to allocate themselves spaces in this garden. The politicians kept the urban planning department in darkness about such an allocation of street vendors in the CBD. Later, the traders were dispersed and promised by the new Governor to get them an alternative area of operation. The promise remains disappointing to date. It marks yet another conflict between politicians and local authorities.

57From Fourchard's (2011) findings, Lagos City’s resources are used to build political networks between state officials and leaders of various civil society groups, influencing the form and function of the city. The infrastructure crisis in Lagos is attributed not only to the weakness of the Nigerian state but also to the traditional opposition between the federal government and Lagos state leaders, especially regarding resource allocation to the city. The Thika context is different; the governor, a politician, is now the head of the County. He literary controls the legal framework governing the street vendors in the town without any pressure from the National Government because the new constitution in the fourth schedule under articles 185 (2), 186 (1), and 187 (2), the constitution gives the county government some functions like trade development and regulation, including (a) markets and b) trade licenses-excluding professionals (c) fair trading practices (d) local tourism (e) cooperative societies. Therefore, the activities undertaken by the local authorities depend on the serving governor's whims. The members of the county assembly (MCA) have a stake in the operations of the local authorities because of their role in approving the heads of different ministries within the counties.

Conflict within the local authorities

  • 14 Street vendor at Commercial Street near Family bank, Interview on 16th May 2020

58While the planning department and finance department are supposed to work in harmony, there is a conflict occasioned by street vendors. Such conflicts are brought about by internal competitions between the two departments on who should undertake a given function (Brown, 2006; May, 2005). These have been necessitated by situations where street vendors have been licensed to operate within areas previously planned for other types of land use. For example, street vendors usually pay their annual license to the finance department but operate at the verandah, and space is allocated to Family Bank. These traders, two selling clothes and the other two selling fruits have occupied a verandah belonging to Family Bank and operate daily from morning till evening. The traders usually operate from morning to evening without harassment from the county enforcement team because they own the annual trading license. One of the traders, Mr. G.14, who sells at the verandah of a Family Bank, has been occupying the space for nearly three years. He notes…

I usually pay my license to the county government, which allows me to operate in my current location. The Family Bank wanted to evict me from the security issue, but I had to show them my permit to operate in the space, which was granted to me by the finance department. I have had to fight for my rights since I have been allowed to operate in this space.

59Where else can the urban planning department not allow such a thing to happen? The finance departments have no issues collecting payments from two traders for the same space. A similar scenario is witnessed when street traders selling fruits with handcarts (Mkokoteni in Swahili) pay county officials daily and weekly licenses, especially along Kisii road. While the handcarts partly block the street, especially for motor vehicles, these traders can continue their business irrespective of traffic jams caused on Kisii Street. This indicates that whatever is contained in the rules and regulations according to the by-law is not necessarily what is practiced on the streets. Sometimes, rules and regulations can be bent for the benefit of one department and at the expense of another department.


60This article aimed to show how street vendors negotiate their place in the city by appropriating streets in a precarious and conflictual environment. The streets are the object of power struggles between the local authorities and the street vendors, who legitimize their presence by relying on laws and other framework texts from the central government. Two essential characteristics of public regulation are revealed: normative stacking and discordance, which produce an ambiguous institutional environment. The regulatory environment is ambiguous, with contradictions between acts - at the national level - and by-laws - at the local level. It is precisely these ambiguities that open up areas of conflict. There is also a gap between local or national texts and everyday practices, as illustrated by petty corruption (Blundo and Olivier de Sardan, 2026). Local regulations seem to be supplanting the constitution, using the notion of fuzzy urban governance (Brown, 2006), as the two normative sources function differently. The contradiction between the constitution and local government regulations works to the disadvantage of street vendors, who must bribe local officials to avoid being taken to court. Practical, informal norms (Olivier de Sardan, 2008) are tacit rules that are exercised unequally depending on the actors involved since the domination of the beneficiaries of regulatory ambiguity over the dominant street vendors characterizes them. In this sense, if they are indeed tacit, they are not shared but rather imposed and at the heart of the actual governance of the streets and the State. These practices give rise to informal redistribution of public resources and forms of power and authority and mechanisms of inequality and exclusion in access to these resources (Blundo et Olivier de Sardan 2006: 4).

61Moreover, the links between the issue of street trading and political and electoral interests are strong, and ambivalence characterizes the relationship between political players and street vendors. At the rhythm of electoral cycles, the latter become populations to be flattered, an electoral potential, but can at other times represent urban deviance about shared norms in local governments. Civil servants and, differently, the various intermediaries exploit spatial rents, which reveals the informal logic of the production of public spaces and the maintenance of street vendors in a situation of domination (Sales, 2016). These informal' trading streets exemplify the contradictions between the space designed by urban planners and users' lived space (Lefebvre, 1974), such as street vendors. They illustrate the contradiction between, on the one hand, the use value perceived and claimed by street vendors, who may even be in competition or conflict, and, on the other hand, between urban rights that are also sometimes in conflict (Morange & Spire, 2019). These informal shopping streets in Thika thus reveal that the norms and practices of everyday actors, rooted in the social, economic, and political context, are forms of resistance to imported urban planning norms. These informal” trading streets showcase the confrontation between two legitimacies: that of people with low incomes rooted in the local context and that of project promoters of a globalized urban modernity one may find in another Kenyan town such as Kisumu (Racaud, 2018). They are also how these street vendors legitimize their presence in the city and even their place in the Kenyan nation since they rely on national texts. This city life, uncertain, precarious, and the subject of power struggles, is a matter of local and national political logic. What is at stake, for example, in the granting of a license to work in a municipal street market is as much about material access to urban space and the right to work there as it is about a particular relationship to the place of informality in the city and the construction of a political and social figure of the street trader (Morange & Spire, 2019).

62It is also part of the hustle economy, i.e., income-generating activities associated with uncertainty and accepted informalities. This localized but globally resonant condition of contemporary urbanism couples generative possibilities that emerge from everyday experiences of uncertainty with the management of insecurities associated with ‘life work’ outside the bounds of normative social institutions (Thieme, 2017).

63“Hustler” is a phrase used primarily in Kenya to describe most people working in the informal sector. Small entrepreneurs like Mama Mboga and Boda-boda riders are on the list; in this context, they are street vendors. The narrative, clothed in the “bottom-up approach” language, was a primary campaign tool by the newly elected Government of Kenya Kwanza. Since assuming power, it has remained a significant talking point in their speeches. The term “hustler” is derived from the experiences of Dr. William Ruto, the newly elected president of Kenya, who believes it reflects the struggles of impoverished Kenyans. Ruto grew up in a family of very modest means, was not well-connected, and was constantly involved in informal economic activities to make ends meet. The term “hustler” was created to describe many Kenyans working mainly in the informal economy rather than the formal sector. This term is becoming a sensitive political issue. These Kenyans, who make up the bulk of the population, are said to be at the bottom of the economic pyramid and have the potential to become entrepreneurs. However, they continue to live in poverty and are marginalized in the face of growth (Muinde, 2013). Therefore, street vending, a vulnerable activity, is a means of building identities, a social life, and a sense of belonging in the precarious environment of African cities.

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1 Interview with Mr. O on 17th February 2020, at Mama-Ngina Garden, Thika e

2 Askaris is a Swahili word for police. In the context of this research, they represent law enforcers under the local authorities.

3 Interview with baba S. was on 6th August 2019 at his farm in Gatanga, Muranga County.

4 Inspectorate officer- A senior officer within a county government who plays a crucial role in maintaining order, ensuring compliance, and upholding the law. He/she is responsible for enforcing county laws and regulations overseeing matters related to public safety, health, environment, and land use. She/he collaborate with law enforcement agencies to address criminal activities.

5 20Vendors%20%28Protection% 20of %20Livelihood%29%20Bill%2C%20No.%2041%20of%202023.pdf

6 Street Vendors Act, 2014. This Act entends to the whole of India except the State of Jammu and Kashmir. Information on the Act, its objectives, short title and commencement. Information related to sections of the act is also given.

7 Interview with Bidan on 13th December 2019 along Kisii Street

8 Tuk-Tuk-Also known as an auto-rickshaw, is a three-wheeled motorized vehicle commonly used for short-distance transportation in various countries. They are designed for urban and suburban travel, especially in congested areas where larger vehicles might struggle to navigate narrow streets or heavy traffic.

9 Boda boda is a type of motorcycle taxi commonly found in East Africa, particularly in countries like KenyaUganda, and Tanzania. The name “boda boda” is believed to originate from the phrase “border to border,” as these motorcycles were initially used to transport goods and people across the Kenya-Uganda border. They provide an essential service for commuters, tourists, and locals.

10 MCA (Members of the County Assembly) - Plays a crucial role within the county governance structure. His roles include formulation and enactment of county laws; represent the interests of their respective wards or constituencies. They act as a bridge between the local community and the county government. They oversee the implementation of county programs and projects. They are elected on a 5-year term.

11 Environmental Impact Assessment Project Report for the Proposed Landscaping, Beautification and Installation of Street Furniture in Thika Municipality

12 interview with Robert on 31st March 2021at Juja modern Market

13 The star newspaper 20th August 2017

14 Street vendor at Commercial Street near Family bank, Interview on 16th May 2020

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Table des illustrations

Titre Illustration 1 - Section of the Local government by-law
Crédits Source: KNCLR 2010
Fichier image/jpeg, 312k
Titre Illustration 2 - Commercial Street, Thika
Crédits Author: S. Racaud, 2016.
Fichier image/jpeg, 400k
Titre Illustration 3 - Kwame Nkrumah road, Thika
Crédits Author: S. Racaud, 2023.
Fichier image/jpeg, 604k
Titre Illustration 4 -Lefebvre’s Triad
Crédits Source: Lefebvre, 1991 with author’s modification.
Fichier image/jpeg, 109k
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Référence électronique

Nathan Mwangi Kariuki et Sylvain Racaud, « Negotiating a place in town. Street vending in Thika (Kenya) »EchoGéo [En ligne], 67 | 2024, mis en ligne le 30 mars 2024, consulté le 24 juillet 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Nathan Mwangi Kariuki

Nathan M. Kariuki,, est chercheur associé au laboratoire Les Afriques dans le monde. Il a récemment publié :
- Racaud S., Kariuki N.M., Schlegel P., 2016. Street Vending In Kisumu and Thika: Lessons from Secondary Towns in Kenya. In International Conference Urbanization and Street Vending, IFRA Nairobi, Kenya.
- Kariuki N., 2022. Street Vendors Associations in Kenya: Political or Economic Resource? Carnet Hypothèses Mambo! [En ligne], vol. XIX, n° 4. URL:
- Kariuki N.M., 2022. Vente de rue, politique d'entretien et de renforcements des chaussées et métropolisation à Thika [accessible sur HAL]. Thèse de doctorat, Université Bordeaux Montaigne. URL:

Sylvain Racaud

Sylvain Racaud,, Université Bordeaux-Montaigne, UMR Les Afriques dans le monde. Il a récemment publié :
- Racaud S. 2023. Montagnes, routes et marchés en Tanzanie. Géographie des circulations dans les Uporoto. Aubervilliers, Comité des Travaux Historiques et Scientifiques - École nationale des chartes, 223 p.
- Racaud S. 2023. Circulations marchandes et mondialisation des relations urbain-rural en Tanzanie. Mwanjelwa, marchés ruraux et produits chinois. Suds [En ligne], n° 287, p. 131-163. URL: - DOI:
- Racaud S. 2022. Low-cost Chinese goods in Tanzania: The rise of transnational trade routes' peripheral branches. Critical African Studies, vol15, n° 1, P. 106-123. DOI: 10.1080/21681392.2022.2154234

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Le texte seul est utilisable sous licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés) sont « Tous droits réservés », sauf mention contraire.

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