The Nakasero Market I knew

Sunday February 28 2021
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By A. Kadumukasa Kironde II

Located in the Central Business District, Nakasero Market has since time immemorial ranked top when it came to shopping for groceries and vegetables. Originally, the market was located in the Lubiri (The Kabaka’s Palace) and moved in 1927. 

The vegetable stalls and lock up shops have never changed. In 1986, when President Museveni came into power the population of Uganda was 18 million. With the exception of a few ugly high rises that surround the market, the core centre remains status quo.
In the 1980s, one could drive to the market and be assured of adequate parking and relative ease of moving around the stalls. Gone is the parking yard which has become a vendors’ space with no thought of shelter from the sun or rain.  The supplanting of the parking space sounded the death knell for the cabs who had set up a rank alongside with the customers who drove to the market. 

In the old days, this area would serve as a depository cum market for the farmers who would arrive at night and sleep under the stars with their produce that would be sold to the market vendors at dawn. Incidentally, the other major benefices of these farmers were the nascent restaurant and hotel owners who would arrive at the crack of dawn and likewise buy produce from the farmers at giveaway prices.  

The idea was to eliminate the middleman, something still possible but they are now relegated to the coterminous streets which in any case are bereft of cars at night. Sealing off the streets every night for the benefit of farmers is not an ideal solution.

Hive of activity
Nakasero market was a joyous place to visit and buy a bounty of fresh produce. Notably, the customers were the middle class Ugandans and the expatriate community mainly whites who would come with their servants who would carry the wares. 

However, it would not be fair not to mention the local Ugandan lads who would eagerly flock upon customers in droves imploring them to assist (for a generous fee) in carrying the groceries and vegetables. I miss the days we walked in the utmost comfort with a sense of order in the stalls allowing for adequate distance. We would move from stall to stall without any let or hindrance from a flurry of vendors each competing and jostling against one another for buyers. 


Today, we have to put up with a gridlock of human traffic. One shudders at the thought of pick pockets and hawkers who are part of the fray.  Vendors have taken every available space; a stall that faces the street puts up with vendors who are directly in front of them encroaching on the pedestrian pathway. This pattern has become the order of the day. 

Freshly slaughtered chicken vendors perch themselves among the food stalls and they have freezers for keeping stock. In a nutshell, the capacity of occupancy of the market vendors has more than quadrupled since the mid1980s and there seems to be no end to this trend.  The mantra seems to be, as long as there is space, let people fill it and make a living.
 Indeed Nakasero market, being the citadel of all the markets, not only offers tremendous bounty, but also a variety of wares from which to choose as well as having a decidedly middle class clientele.

 Bargaining has always been part of the game and the presence of more vendors has brought about untold competition and a benefit to the buyers.  One thing that makes this market outstanding is the consistent quality of products.One can always count on getting scarce items such as curry leaves, fresh basil, thyme, and tarragon. Not to mention cantaloupe, artichokes, pak choi, and sorrel. The multicultural clientele who demand these things are consistent in shopping from there and are prepared to pay the price. The rest of the markets are reduced to selling the run of the mill vegetables for example, carrots, tomatoes, garlic, and onions. 

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Shopping at Nakasero Market is a tug of war. Photo | File

The business gurus
What is unknown to many is that the gigantic Capital Shoppers had its humble origins from the precincts of Nakasero Market. In the late 1980s, Ponsiano Ngabirano had a mini supermarket, the size of a postage stamp located below the lower market on Market Street. The 1980s were times of abject scarcity of high end consumer goods such as butter, marmalade, honey, bacon, sausages, vinegar, and wine. 

There was a crippling shortage of foreign exchange in the country and Ngabirano had the foresight to work with the parallel market and import from the UK and Kenya a slew of items that would appeal to the burgeoning middle class. There was a certain Mr Bowser, who has since passed on and he was a rather enterprising fellow who dabbled in the importation of foodstuff, and booze mainly from Kenya. Being of British origin, though a naturalised Ugandan, he used to supply various commodities to the British High Commission and the community. He had a truck that he would drive to Kenya as often as needed and load a plethora of goods and bring them to Uganda. His truck bore a bold sign: “On Contract to the British High Commission” but had no diplomatic immunity.

Needless to say, given the proximity of the market from the Capital Shoppers, he was assured of a ready market for his goods. Despite competition from copy cats, Ngabirano is nevertheless the father of the modern supermarket to be found in Uganda today. The road to success for him was by no means without toil. Once a fire occurred and Ngabirano was tipped off in time to alert the fire brigade or semblance of it, the fire was brought under control and where Capital Shoppers was located is now a gaudy building with shops on the ground floor. During the early 1990s Capital Shoppers erected a storeyed building where they established what was probably the first modern supermarket in Nakasero. Today, they boast several branches in Kampala and the suburbs.

Placing orders
When we look at Nakasero market of those days, communication was key. We must bear in mind that cell phones and boda bodas were unheard of and motor vehicles were few, making travel to the city centre relatively easy. Today, a vendor such as Sarah Nassuna, who has been in the market for years, does a great deal of her business using her mobile phone and dispatching orders by boda bodas. Nowadays, one can call the likes of Nassuna and make an order without leaving the comfort of their home.  

While the Nakasero market of today continues to be a chaotic place, it remains the first choice for the burgeoning Asian and Chinese population who are assured of getting a bounty of vegetables and groceries that would not be available elsewhere. When it comes to slaughtering chickens and livestock, historically this has been the exclusive preserve of the Muslims. While there is no abattoir for livestock on site, only Muslims are allowed to slaughter chickens and this is done on site. Pork has always been a taboo subject in deference to the Muslims while other meats are openly sold. There is a place where it is sold. 

Who sold what
In the past, the Luo from Kenya predominantly sold vegetables and there was no such thing as getting a stall from the Kampala City Council. These stalls, besides being personal to holder, are held in perpetuity and passed on from owner to progeny and to this day the system still prevails. 

Notwithstanding the fact that they are no longer the dominant tribe running the show, since the people in  central soon woke up and realised the merits of selling to a large moneyed expatriate community.  As for why the Luo came to be the main occupants of the market, this has to do with the attitude of the Baganda who at that time thought that running a stall in the market was pedestrian fodder. They reasoned that at least they (the Baganda) were the producers of the goods so why bother spending hours cooped up in a stall!  

The future  

Over time, there has been talk of modernising Nakasero market but owing to ongoing wrangles within the Kampala City Council Authority, this dream seems like pie in the sky. It goes without saying, that despite our emotional attachment to this iconic market and given the prime nature of the property and the central location, we are reaching a tipping point. Diminishing returns are setting in, modernisation and change for the better must come sooner than later.