Kibuye Market

Indigenous Economy and Social Space in Western Kenya’s Largest Open-Air Market

Kibuye Market in Kisumu, Kenya is one of the largest open-air markets in all of East Africa. Although the market has existed since the end of the colonial period, it has received very little attention as a space of great social and economic significance to the surrounding population of Nyanza Province and beyond. Offering goods from groceries to shoes, and services from medical treatment to carpentry, Kibuye Market is an excellent example of indigenous capitalism's contribution to Kenya's gross domestic product, as well as the socio-economic importance of open-air markets in African society.

Indicative of a colonial economic tradition, the open-air market holds an important place in the domestic economies of East Africa. The marketplace is the center of many urban areas, drawing people from throughout an entire region to serve their retail needs. Kibuye Market in Kisumu, Kenya is one of the largest such markets in East Africa and holds great significance to the regional economy around Lake Victoria on the Kenya-Uganda border. As an important center for trade, Kibuye is a useful example in the analysis of the African marketplace and its effect on the daily lives of Kenyans as well as the domestic economy.

Kisumu—or more properly, "Kisumo," from the word “sumo,” a Luo word for trade—has been a trading port in East Africa since the pre-colonial period. The arrival of the British and the construction of the Kenya-Uganda Railroad (that passes through the city) at the turn of the twentieth century only heightened its economic significance as an entrepôt city. Kibuye—a derivative of ‘kibuyu,’ which is the Luo word for the jerricans used by many people for carrying fuel and water—Market District was founded in the center of the city during the 1950s by members of the Diocese of Kisumu and Roman Catholic missionaries. Church members carried their trading commodities to church and sold them after mass. The missionaries eventually allowed the traders to move to a field owned by the Church, but only under the condition that merchants would not build any permanent trading stalls or other edifices.

Kibuye served an indigenous populace disrupted economically and socially by British colonialism. Africans from throughout the region began to rely on the market’s smallholder farmers, merchants, and various businesses to sustain them after they were robbed of their livestock and forced off their ancestral homelands. Today, Kibuye remains the main retail market for agriculture in Nyanza Province, but it has grown over the years to offer goods and resources ranging from furniture, clothes, shoes, metal works, hair salons, carpentry, and religious and medical services. Treating disease is of particular importance in Kisumu: fishmongers in the market are particularly susceptible to diseases like bilharzia, pneumonia, dysentery, and typhoid. Kibuye Medical Center and Avenue Hospital offer treatment to merchants and patrons, and small hotels known as vibandas provide lodging and dining options. On Sundays, known as “market days,” thousands of people (mostly African women) from all around the region descend on Kisumu for shopping and other services. The market expands once a week beyond the indoor shops like Raila Hall and rows of stalls to an adjacent field in the Market District. Kibuye is indeed a center for social interaction and is referred to as the “melting pot of Kisumu” because it brings a diverse range of people into the city.

Urban centers provide more than a marketplace and a cash economy: they foster a national ethos. Geographer W.T.M. Morgan supports the theory that cities like Kisumu and markets like Kibuye are cultural melting pots. He argues that cities benefit Kenya “socially, [as] migration to towns weakens the restricting influence of tribal traditional custom (sic) and politically, [since] the mixing of peoples can assist in breaking down tribal tensions which are so damaging to stability in Africa and encourage the evolution of a sense of national purpose as against tribal sectional self-interest.” Just before independence, Kisumu was the fourth largest city in the country with a population of 23,526, comprised of 14,119 African and 9,407 non-African Kenyans. (As of the most recent census in 2009, Kisumu has a population of 409,928 and is the third largest in Kenya.) This is a diverse demographic by national standards, and these numbers suggest Kisumu’s economic importance as the largest city in Western Kenya. Prosperity, however, was virtually unattainable for most indigenous Africans during and after the colonial period.

Historian Michael Chege explains how native African trade in marketplaces like Kibuye was much more instrumental in sustaining Kenya during the “miracle years” following independence than the historical record recognizes. The “race-and-economy debate”—which suggested that the African contribution to the domestic economy was insignificant to that of Europeans and Asians—dates back to the previous period of British occupation. Chege believes this argument is baseless. He attributes 69% of production in the industrial and consumer goods sector between 1964-1984 to domestic demand among the African population. Indigenous Africans, in other words, have been stimulating the Kenyan GDP in agricultural markets like Kibuye as producers and consumers.

Kibuye Market has been the lifeblood of Kisumu and the surrounding area as a center for trade. The market would serve the ever-growing community much better, however, if a substantial investment were made by the government to modernize it. The initial design only intended to serve a few people, but Kisumu’s growth as an entrepôt city has caused a tremendous increase in the numbers of traders and shoppers in the market. The market’s infrastructure (i.e. merchant stalls, public restrooms, etc.) has not been able to keep up sufficiently with the rate of Kibuye’s growth. And whereas the general attitude of the government towards open-air markets like Kibuye has historically been one of ambivalence, those initiatives by the state to restructure or modernize Kibuye have often resulted in violence. Kenyan lawmakers and urban planners need only look to the central role played by open-air market traders in Kenya’s history to realize the significant impact that such markets have on the national economy and the quality of life for countless individuals.