A Supermarket Fell in the Forest

Michael Onsando
10 October ,2017

Somewhere between the rise of Carrefour, the fall of Nakumatt and the scramble for space there is an interesting narrative of politics and resource. This narrative that really sells itself hard given recent reports of racism at Carrefour (they have since promised to look into the matter) – and Naivas seems to understand what is happening, but can’t seem to move enough product to be a top market player.

Which is perhaps one way to try and understand what we mean when we talk about a racist system.

Recently I have been thinking about internal narratives vs. net results – or what we imagine happened based on what we know, feel and understand and what actually happened (or our mutual misunderstandings met each other). Many words to say that sometimes things aren’t what we think they are. What we experience in the world is often just the crashing point of several ‘net results’ if you will. Perhaps this is where empathy comes in – in seeing where someone is coming from, you can better understand that the things that are happening might not be about you. Yet at the same time knowing that some actions need to be stopped no matter what the internal narrative (like, don’t kill your wife because she wants to leave you).

But what does this have to do with Atul Shah’s business, once valued at Sh34 Billion? And Carrefour, whose first half sales in 2017 were Sh5.3 Trillion – twice our national budget.

What a racist system is, is the net result. The net result being that the retail space is taken over by a French company. Thus taking a large chunk of capital out of the country. Now, of course, this is not to say that Carrefour isn’t also distributing a lot of capital within the country, the sourcing, labour etc. is mostly local (I’d imagine up to a certain point in management but I haven’t really looked into this, so don’t quote me). But the ‘big bucks’ are going to leave – back to Carrefour’s shareholding.

The internal narrative is slightly more complicated of course. A struggling Nakumatt either expanded too far too quickly, squeezed their own suppliers off the shelves or took too long to pay their suppliers. All three – or two of three in whichever combination you choose. Tuskys are, as anyone would in a capitalist space, trying to expand. There’s no better time for them. After all, that’s how Nakumatt stole the country from Uchumi right? (Or, the king is dead – long live the king). Naivas won everything of course. Further it’s not like Tuskys haven’t had their own wrangles – the latest actually getting in the way of them catching some scraps from the Nakumatt fall out. And let’s not talk about how the Naivas family battle was brutal.

The net result insists that this is a neutral playing ground. That somehow this is what fairness looks like. A vulnerable market where few can raise the funds to set up and maintain a large retail chain is thus open to the world.

The consumer is less complicated. The consumer’s primary concern is that they have a nice clean place to shop where they can get their Nutella and Fanta. So this is not even necessarily a plea to ‘buy local’ because what does that even mean? Whether you buy the soap from the shop or from the supermarket, it’s still Unilever’s money. Local brands would be good if it wasn’t for the absence of mass local manufacturing of most goods.

Instead, this is an attempt to approach what is meant by this idea of systemic. Because what is framed as systemic is often heard as an affront, which gets in the way of actually having conversations about how to disentangle ourselves.

Whose fault would it be should the largest chunk of our Sh1.8 Trillion retail market end up in the hands of the French? (Fault is a heavy word. I don’t mean to connote a particular horribleness, rather asking to whom shall we assign cause for this effect?) All Carrefour did was seize an opportunity. If they hadn’t, any other multinational would have come into the market for the prime bucks. All Nakumatt have done is grow and fight to continue growing every step of the way, as with Tuskys and Naivas. The government has done all they can, they’ve laid the framework for business, they have competition laws and company laws – there’s little more. Market restriction, after all, would only put them in the bad books of the consumer (who, coincidentally, is also the voter).

This is why it is called a system. A system doesn’t make any moves of its own – it merely creates the environment where any moves made will lead to a predetermined outcome. This system was born out of history originally of the design of total subjugation (colonialism) and is now just what is around after you partly remove something. A nothing space that is difficult to quantify but always shows up in odd places. Like KQ’s new Polish chief hiring five senior level executives from Poland as four local top executives quit. We ask ourselves questions. Is it? Could it be? Surely, it must be something else.

It won’t be anyone’s fault if Carrefour becomes the market giant (they already are?) – no one in particular anyway.

It will just be a thing that has happened – and we won’t be hard pressed to figure out why because the answer is quite obvious isn’t it? They had the money to do it. And because they had the money they will continue to have the money (the poor get poorer, the rich get richer anyone?). Tuskys will live to fight another day and we will be left wondering whether there is an actual ceiling to how high a local supermarket can grow.

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