By 9p.m most weekdays, Nathan Seremba has packed his merchandise and is ready to load it on a lorry that transports it to Kamwokya, a Kampala suburb, where he works on Fridays. But the sky is becoming darker, cars are screaming into the trading centre in Kisaasi and he is convincing two potential customers to buy bed covers.
He reaches out for a green floral bedcover to lure a woman. “This is the best, it has two exteriors that you can use. It’s of good quality and very warm. It only costs Shs50,000,” Mr Seremba tells a woman while another man thinks twice about the purchase. The woman was put off because of the price he quoted.
“It is normally Shs60,000 but I want to give you a good discount,” he adds.
After minutes of bargaining, they reach a reasonable price, giving Mr Seremba the night’s last sale. “Today was not a good day,” he says. “The market in Seeta works best for me and on a good day, one can make between Shs50,000 and Shs150,000.”
Trading in these roving markets made more sense to him when locating his business in one was no longer profitable.
Roving markets are mobile markets that shift from town to town depending on the market day.
Kamwokya, Nakawa, Owino and Banda, he says, were the powerful markets then. Today, several have been established in different suburbs.
“I travel to six markets in a week. When I had just started, the business was very profitable. But that has changed. The number of traders has grown tremendously because more people are working today than then and everyone who migrates to the city, joins this business. Whoever was earning profits of Shs10,000 on a single product now earns Shs3,000 today.”
Despite the low sales, after 20 years of selling bedcovers in these roving markets, 41-year-old Seremba cannot think of anything better to do.
“I have built a house in Kiwatule, I have married, raised a family. I have my market stalls in Nakawa and I move my merchandise to different trade shows in the country,” he says as if to illustrate his achievements.
In the crowded market of Kiwatule, a man is advertising his curtains. When he explains why he is using a horn loudspeaker to broadcast his prices, he reveals it is a tactic to set him apart in such markets.
“I earn a lot between 7p.m and 8p.m. Buyers do not bother to find some items at night. When I advertise, it attracts more customers because someone can hear from a distance,” the young man who identifies himself as Philbert Byaruhanga says.
Mr Byaruhanga, in his 20s, has been rotating his merchandise in Nabweru, Mukono, Kiwatule, Banda, Nansana, Kawuku and Mbuya for two years now.
“I prefer to move with my business because we are searching for markets in different areas,” he says.
Indeed, he has been able to earn. He is able to meet his domestic bills in Kampala. He has some savings too.
“My stock is worth Shs500,000 per day. My overall profits can range between Shs50,000 and Shs100,000 per day,” he reveals.
Mr Byaruhanga is not the only one employing creativity in the roving market.
Instead of speakers, Paul Ikoba is seemingly rapping.
“Shs2,000 each blouse,” he yells. He likes to believe that it changes his fortunes.
“We sing loudly so that we entice customers. We make them laugh and it is also an important part of customer care,” he says.
With capital of Shs1.5m, Mr Ikoba is able to start his day and is able to earn.
“You cannot earn the same each day because each market has its own bearing on profits. There are markets that I go to and make Shs100,000 and others Shs300,000,” he says.
From as far as Busoga region, Mr Ikoba has been in this business for three years now. The reflections that linger in his mind remind him that times are different.
“I used to earn a lot at first but today because of the high taxes, it is not as profitable. Our customers are low class citizens so the merchandise we sell has to be cheap,” he says.
Most traders in roving markets are youth and so are their customers. Youth do not have much money to spend, Mr Ikoba supposes. These traders were never ready for the increase in the cost of doing business but at least they have solutions.
“I pay market dues every time I show up in a market. But the market dues are too many and costly for us in roving markets. They must be revised,” Mr Ikoba says. Those are not the only costs traders have to incur. They must seek authorisation to work in a particular roving market.
“Every market has its own chairperson so you pay between Shs10,000 and Shs20,000 to get a card that allows you to operate,” he explains.
There are two more issues these traders have in common. Mr Seremba says, “When it rains, we cover the merchandise but it still gets spoilt.”
For Mr Ikoba, the challenge is transport fares escalate especially in rainy seasons.
“Fares are hiked and you end up spending your capital even after a day of low sales,” he says.
Mr Byaruhanga, on the other hand, says, “Commuter taxis, in markets like Busunju, can be hard to come by for us who work till late. So how do you get your merchandise back to Kampala?”
One female trader found a solution to transport problems and her customers are now familiar with the trader who vends scholarstic materials from her pickup truck.
“I travel with this truck to Salama, Bulenga, Nakawuka and Kumwenda markets. I need to have Shs5m as capital and if it is in a back to school season, I can even earn Shs2m a day,” Ms Jackie Nanyondo says.
However, “sometimes the car gets spoilt and you cannot make good sales because people cannot locate you if you are not selling from the car,” she says.