The term “mall” remains a very loosely used one encompassing actual malls, mixed use developments, shopping centres and even mere commercial buildings. Isn’t it high time we started protecting some terms to give them the seriousness they deserve? According to the English Oxford Living Dictionary, the North American definition of a mall is “a large enclosed shopping area from which traffic is excluded”. That seems to be the operational definition in Kenya but with a very elastic definition of what the term “large” entails.

Kenya does need more malls – but not the kind of mall you are thinking of or the kinds we have put up thus far.

We need more malls. We just need the right malls at the right scale for this market, and may be we should stop using the term mall completely.

Here is an interesting point about neighborhoods that put the so-called “middle class” and “upmarket” to shame. Mr Willy Kimani, the COO of Naivas Supermarkets, talking during a panel discussion at the East Africa Property Investment Summit in April 2017 mentioned that Naivas’ little outlet somewhere off Mombasa Rd is actually doing better in terms of basket value than Greenhouse Mall in upmarket Kilimani. It is a trend the chain has observed. The money may not be where the typical Kenyan mall think it is.

How about a Kenyan “mall” with Kenyan brands? Let us just call it a “shoppie” to borrow the Sheng term.

How would this mall look? During a panel discussion by the Architectural Association of Kenya to mark its 50th Anniversary, the chosen topic was “Nairobi, Then + Now”.  I happened to sit on that panel and was fascinated that Nairobi in the 1930s is probably what we need now – open, largely pedestrian friendly, at human scale. So,  first, the mall must be fully pedestrianized. Vehicles and all those security checks are increasingly becoming a turn off for the the casual weekday shopper looking to just pick up some milk and bread  at the behest of his loving wife. He is not looking for “an experience”. He is not looking for everything under one roof. It must be small and the carry everyday items. Let us leave those leather sofas to the big malls we visit once a week or even once a month, at month end. It must allow some “pop up shops”, what we still call “exhibitions” despite the fact that they no longer exhibit but explicitly sell. These are actually an evolution of Gikomba stalls brought slightly upmarket.

They work for many Kenyans. Just visit Toi market near Kibera and observe the demographics of poorly camouflaged middle-class shoppers. The “shop keepers” shall proudly tell you they are as good as city centre shops, just without a glass in front and door to keep you out. Let us pack in little everyday people stuff like fish and chicken outlets, affordable ones, actually, cheap ones. Please don’t bring in any global franchise. Let us give some real Kenyan brands a chance. Can we be brave enough to have some “mama mbogas”, the watch repair guy with his box and a “mtumba” stall included? Would such an opportunity give them a chance to scale and grow into the large brands they should have become years ago?

Feeling Kenyan enough? How about a “kiosk mall”? A good old “shoppie”? Anybody?

Article by Tom Sitati, Partner, Brand Integrated Consulting.