I would be living about 2 kilometers from town, 3 from the University, about 1.86 miles. It was not a bad walk and I had done it once, and it took thirty or forty minutes. A bicycle would be preferable, however. I looked online to see if there was a bike shop in Kakamega but could find none. I was surprised because Kakamega is a large town of about 100,000 people if you include surrounding areas. I could see people riding bicycles almost everywhere. So where did they come from? I asked around and people said Tuskys or Nakumatt. They were large general department and grocery stores similar to Target and Walmart.
I went to Tuskys, the more affordable of the two, and was quite disappointed. They had bicycles imported from China for 6 to 12 thousand Kenyan shillings, or $60-$120. But they were literally falling apart, barely rideable. There were some cool bikes imported from India in the same price range, very old school, like riding a tank. These were the bikes that local men adapted for riding customers around for 20 or 30 Shillings. I went to Nakumatt and found the same selection, but with one more option. They had high end Raleigh brand for 50 to 60 thousand KSh, or $500-600. That was a small fortune in Kenya. I asked why they were so expensive and the clerk said, “The dollar is too strong.”
In the last few years the KSh to USD exchange rate has averaged 80 to 85 Kenyan Shillings to the dollar, but a few months ago it rose sharply. Today it is at 106 Kenyan Shillings to the dollar. Merchandise imported from the US, or even connected to the US dollar as a reference, would be about 20% more expensive. It puts US-produced goods at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to trade. When I exchange dollars for KSh I get a 20% advantage. As it turns out, part of my paycheck from the University will be in KSh and part will be directly deposited from the Brien Holden Vision Institute in USD (made possible by VOSH International). If I ever need to exchange KSh back to USD I will be at a 20% disadvantage, at today’s exchange rate.
Anyone who is a saver, watches sales, or collects coupons knows that 20% is a big deal. If you read news articles about economics or finance, you will read about US exporters suffering because of decreased demand. It is the strong dollar that is causing the main issue, and many factors contribute to that. When China, Japan, Europe, or England devalue their currencies, the dollar strengthens. When the dollar seems like more of a safe haven in world full of instability, the dollar strengthens. This is the current dynamic.
It was early Saturday afternoon. I decided that a buying a bicycle would be very good idea, and it appeared to me that Kakamega was not the best place to buy, so I decided to head down the hill to Kisumu. Kisumu is a City of 300,000 and should have more options. I packed a day pack with my computer and some extra clothes and toiletries. I walked out of the National Housing complex and took the five minute motorbike taxi to downtown for 50 KSh. There I jumped on a small bus headed to Kisumu. It had about ten rows of four seats, all full. They had build a bracket under the seat to hold a nicely sanded 2×6″ board about 3′ long. The operators could slip the board between the seats to create a new seat in the aisle. They packed that bus as full as it could get. I got a board seat towards the front. We were on our way. A few minutes later one of the operators asked me for 200 KSh and I dug into my pocket to get the money. Not too bad, $2 to get down the hill, and it took 2 hours. Just as I had so often noted in Kenya, the people were patient and good-natured even when packed into a warm bus.
This is a small bus similar to the one I took to Kisumu.
The bus dropped us off at an open air terminal which also served as a marketplace. Immediately when I stepped off the bus there were offers for a taxi or motorcycle ride. I asked around for a bicycle shop. No, no bicycle shop they said. One motorcycle taxi guy seemed very confident he knew were to go, so I went with him. He took me to the closest Nakumatt. I might as well check it out, maybe Kisumu was different. I found a new option there. It was a Kenyan-made Buffalo Bike, quite heavy duty and one speed for 19,500 KSh. Not too bad. I asked him is there was a used bike store, but he did not understand. Finally, he said, “Oh, second hand?” “Yes, second hand,” I replied. He took me to a pawn shop, but they had no bikes. The whole thing was perplexing to me. It was a city of 300,000 with bikes everywhere but apparently no bike shop. It was 4pm, and I was getting tired. I asked him to take me to the Kisumu Hotel. I had scouted it out earlier. It was a historic hotel in the city center for an affordable price. Once I got settled in I called Gedion, the driver from a few days earlier. He agreed to meet me Sunday morning at 10am to look.
Gedion arrived on time. The problem he said was that it was Sunday morning and nothing was open. He took me to a waterfront restaurant to discuss our options. I got a bitter lemon soda and he got mango juice. I mulled over the idea of heading back to Kakamega or staying in Kisumu one more night. He said he would make some calls, do the research and pick me up at 8am Monday morning. I told him we would not have much time because I had a faculty meeting at noon in Kakamega. “No problem,” he replied.
As usual, Gedion was right on time. He said he knew where to go.
He had done his research well. Here is Gedion talking with the security guard at Coop Kenya: The Green Hub. Unfortunately, the owners were out of town and even though he saw lots of bikes inside, they were not for sale. The security guard recommended a place by the airport and Gedion got the address. We went there, but they had just moved. Once again, he got the new address. We were running out of time.
Finally, we pulled into a warehouse district near the Kisumu airport.
We hit the mother lode of bicycles! Buffalo bikes was a new company with bicycles made in Kenya.
They had the heavy duty option I had seen at Nakumatt, and another lighter option with 6 gear, fixed gear in front, 6 in back. It was clearly well designed.
Here is Gedion, in the white shirt, helping to set up the new bicycle. He was so happy that he had found the right place. Buffalo Bicycles is a new business specializing in affordable middle-quality bikes. My new bike, the Charger model, costed 17,500 KSh, or $175, and it included a pump, wrench, tire iron, bell, fenders, and rack (already installed). Gedion helped to load it carefully into his trunk using spare packing material and straps from the warehouse. I spoke with Kennedy, the cashier of this new small business. I told him my saga of how hard it was to find a good bike, and mentioned I was from Kakamega. “Oh, we have a new office in Kakamega, but it’s hard to find. We will be moving soon to a storefront at the Holden Mall, near the Nakumatt,” he said. I was looking about a month too soon, but it all worked out.
Here I am on my new bike next to the National Housing complex where I live. I left at 11:30am for my first faculty meeting scheduled at noon. On the way to work, I heard many murmurs and outright laughter. “Hey, look! There’s a mzungu riding a bike!” It happened over and over again. I spoke about it later with a University administrator and he confirmed my suspicion. “Bicycles are for poor people in Kenya. When they see you riding a bicycle they assume you are rich, but the bicycle is for the poor, so it is funny to them,” he said. I was happy to be rocking people’s worlds in Kakamega.