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Business owners displaced in Kenya

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KAI RYSSDAL: Reconciliation talks in Kenya have come to a delicate moment. Opposition leaders in Nairobi said today, they’ll start up street protests again next week if the government doesn’t make concrete concessions. Protests and ethnic violence that started after elections in December have led to more than 1,000 deaths so far. Perhaps 500,000 people have been driven from their homes. Kenya’s main industries, tourism and agriculture, have slim hopes for profits in the next few months, and small business owners have had to leave behind their livelihoods to save their lives.

From Nairobi, Sara Nics reports.

SARA NICS: Enos Robinson says Jamhuri Park is supposed to be a place of business, not a place of refuge. The bespectacled young Luo man says he finds it hard to believe that his family is now living with hundreds of other displaced Kenyans. They are camped on grounds that are best known for hosting the annual International Trade Fair. Twenty-six year old Robinson says he used to wake up early every morning to tend to his own business, a wholesale food shop in the Rift Valley town of Thika.

ENOS ROBINSON: That shop of mine, it was my father. It was my mother. It is the place I was getting the daily food of mine.

Robinson says he’s spent the past six years growing the business from a meager investment of about $75 U.S., to an inventory worth about $1,500. He says his good business sense enabled him to net about $30 a day. The average daily wage in Kenya is about $1.50 U.S. He re-invested half the profits in the business. The other half supported his wife and child, but all that changed in early February, during the latest wave of violence in Thika.

ROBINSON: When I went out, I looked from a distance to my place. I could see many guys carrying my own things, but nothing I could have done. All had gone, and it is like when the milk pour down; you can not recollect it.

Robinson says, like many of the Luos who’ve left the Rift Valley, he will return to his rural home. There, he will try to start all over again. Patrick Gathitu Kariuku is a Kikuyu businessman from the Rift Valley town of Eldoret. He and his family fled to Nairobi to escape attacks that are part of a long-standing land dispute in the area. Kariuku left behind a flour mill, a hotel, rental properties and another business, which he says was his particular passion. About six years ago, he and his wife started a project to develop and sell inexpensive tools. The goal, to improve the lives of people living in poverty in rural Kenya.

PATRICK GATHITU KARIUKU: Simple technology that can assist somebody, like example, draw water. All that we do to try and alleviate poverty. That’s where my passion is. My heart, believe me or not, I had given to the same people who don’t want to see me in the region.

Kariuku hired out the manufacturing work to local people who had small cottage industries. With no business in the area now, he says, those people have no income. Kariuku says he can’t go back to Eldoret. He will try to sell his properties in the Rift Valley to raise enough money to move the small tools business to Nairobi. That means laying off 20 staff people in the Rift Valley which he says will add to the poverty in the area. That in turn will feed the violence.

KARIUKI: These are not high-income earners. Within a very short time they will be in a very desperate situation. When somebody is hungry, you don’t start telling that person things will work out in a year’s time and the person is hungry now. It will take anything for desperate people to spark another spate of violence.

He’d like to keep his businesses in Eldoret, but for now Kariuki says he does not see an end to the cycle of vengeance. He says displaced business people in Kenya have little choice but to sell any remaining property. They must start fresh in a location where their tribal affiliations don’t put their lives or their livelihoods at risk.

In Nairobi, I’m Sara Nics, for Marketplace.

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