BY ISAAC SWILA
It is 6pm Thursday as I make my way into Nakumatt Lifestyle, one of Nakumatt Holding Limited’s largest chain outlets in Nairobi. But here, something seems amiss. Unlike in the past, such evening rush hours would attract a beeline of shoppers making their way into the chain store either to shop, for coffee dates, or to have a bite at some of the many eateries that once scrambled for space within the giant building.
On this particular day, however, the buzz, oomph and excitement that was once a hallmark of this prestigious chain store is no more. Inside the store, the once busy workers with punitive workload look idle. They appear relaxed but are not hearty either. Some of them, seemingly used to the dictum of a quick-paced job now usher in their customers with the long blank gazes – pointing to employees starring at an uncertain future.
On the ground floor, I immediately notice that something is amiss too .The once booming bakery shop is no more. It has closed its doors! I make my way to the first floor via the stairs and I’m once again met with the same dullness. Here, I meet a female employee, Mary (not her real name). She is probably in her late forties or early fifties. Keen to initiate a dialogue, I show fervent interest in buying one of the safari caps on sale.
Before long, we have built a rapport and our discussion switches from the goods on display to the state of business in the once flourishing chain store that was the envy of the region– and which she has probably served with distinction.
“You know, people will always talk, lakini sisi tuko sawa (We are OK). You can see things are on the shelves , we are OK,” Mary tells me with a smile, putting up a brave face but the tone of her voice betrays her.
I excuse myself and make my way to the lights and bulbs section. Here, I encounter a middle-aged man. Unlike Mary, he is exuberant. After prodding him for a while, I buy a bulb and proceed to make payment at the cashier.
But here again, something screams out loud. Everything is out of place. Unlike before when the queue waiting to make payments would be long, today, there is none at all!
What shocked me even more is the fact that there is no loose change for a mere Sh500 note. The cashier has to seek help from a colleague from the opposite end.
For some time now, Nakumatt has been in the financial doldrums. Not only has it had to close some of its outlets but have also been forced to scale down on its human resource sending about 100 employees home as sales nosedived due to the drop in the number of customers in the wake of their struggles, and with a media which has been very generous in offering acres of airtime highlighting their plight. The suppliers have also stopped deliveries owing to accrued debt.
In Uganda, Nakumatt recently shut down one of their outlets, Katwe branch, which had been operational since October 2013.This was attributed to the struggle of the chain store which, according to the Ugandan press, had accumulated rent arrears running into Ksh8.5 million.
And in February this year, the retail shop also shut its Ronald Ngala branch in Nairobi’s downtown citing low sales.
Further, about 1,555 employees had not received their May salaries by June 20 compounding an also already dire situation.
“We had a delay in some salary payments. The restructuring has taken longer than anticipated and affected some of our liabilities,” Andrew Dixon, the groups marketing director told a local daily in the wake of the furore.
This is a stark contrast to a few years back when Nakumatt Holdings Limited prided itself not only as a market leader but also a prestigious chain store in East Africa with approximately 5, 700 employees in Kenya, alone.
Nakamatt’s struggle however mirrors that of its junior competitor, Uchumi, which nearly went under three years ago prompting the government to inject a Sh1.2 billion bailout in a bid to inject a new lease of life.
However, despite the government’s intervention, Uchumi is yet to find good health as it’s continually under observation in the general ward.
By and large, the struggle by the chain stores mirror the tough economic times and the cruel business climate that companies have been forced to navigate through and which has led to massive job losses.
From Aviation to media, insurance to financial services sector, the picture has not been rosy.
Leading financial bank in terms of assets, KCB, recently laid off over 300 employees while the Nation Media Group, East Africa’s largest and independent media house has in the last three years sent home over 500 employees, besides shutting five stations across its east African market in restructuring gestures in a bid to stay afloat.