Revitalising Valley Arcade

I lost my political virginity on the beach south of Dar es Salaam. It was back in the early 1980s and in the Ujamaa days of Julius Nyerere. The taps in the state-run hotel where I was staying often ran dry, the rooms were shabby, the food was tasteless, the service was usually slack and sometimes surly. It was the same story in all the other state-run hotels along the long stretch of Indian Ocean beach.

I began to realise the value of private enterprise and competition. I began to appreciate the saying that was going around Kenya at the time: ‘Tanzanians say that Kenya is a man-eat-dog society – but that’s better than their man-eat-nothing society’.

Well, it’s an example of enterprise and competition that I want to talk about this week. (Though, to be fair, these days it could just as well have come up in Dar-es-Salaam as Nairobi.)

For the last year or so, I’ve been interested in the way in which the old shopping centres of Nairobi (places like Adams Arcade, Lavington Green and Valley Arcade) have responded to the glitzy spread of new malls, with their Nakumatts and South African-style stores and eateries. The successful response, it seems, is to go for the different and the special.

And something very special came up just last week in Valley Arcade. Already, this Lavington shopping centre had an excellent chemist and DVD library, a well-stocked vegetable market with home-made pickles and curries, a Nokia phone shop, a picture-framer, a busy bakery and a Thai restaurant. But it didn’t have much of a life.

Now, it has a deli and catering place called Moniko’s. What used to be an electronic equipment repair shop has become a kitchen, bar and counter, serving shaded tables spread along the terrace and across the grass.

Jonas Gejke, a Swede (from the nation that, ironically, put more money than any other into supporting Tanzania’s Ujamaa) set up Moniko’s (named after his young son and from the Maasai word meaning ‘fearless’, he tells me). But he quickly paid tribute to his business partner, Alida Sher, for much of the creativity and energy in the place.

I asked Jonas what was the key idea behind Moniko’s.

‘That’s easy to answer,’ he said. ‘What is on the menu here is what I wanted for lunch but couldn’t find in Nairobi. What you get is a fresh baguette, not too hard and not too soft, with good cuts of meat and plenty of vegetarian options. Variety. Healthy food.’

There are nine different salads – from a Rancher’s beef to a Mediterranean salad of feta cheese, tomatoes, rucola and capers. There are vegetarian and non-vegetarian quiches, soups, pasta dishes and curries. For sweets, again there is a tempting variety: from Swedish apple cake, frozen lime cheesecake, to oat flans with chocolate.

For my sandwich I chose the ‘Andreas chicken’ – for no other reason than that’s the name of my older son.

‘Actually, that’s proving to be the most popular,’ said Jonas. ‘Perhaps because it’s the first item on the menu, or perhaps because especially our African clients like the chunky meat.’

Whatever the reason for choosing, it was delicious – and well garnished with crinkly lettuce and red peppers.

They pressed me to try the lime cheesecake. I’m glad they did. Also delicious.

‘So how are you doing, in the nine days you have been open?’ I asked.

Jonas looked round the garden tables – already full.

‘Well, that man over there has been here for lunch all nine days,’ he said. ‘That couple must have been at least four times…. So I think we are doing OK!’

‘With all the new restaurants coming up in this area – where ten years ago there were none – are you confident of surviving the competition?’

‘Sure. Because this is something different, don’t you think?’

Different, yes. And Moniko’s has given a new life to the shopping centre. Weekdays, it opens from 8 am till 6.30 pm. Though on Friday, there’s an ‘after work evening’ till 9 pm. On Sundays, there’s jazz. So the sedate Valley Arcade has even begun to swing.

Published in Kenya’s Sunday Nation