Itâ€™s mid-morning on a Wednesday and Joseph Mavete is behind the counter at Spring Valley Corner Shop, hoping for customers to come through.
It is a slow morning, like many he has witnessed in the recent past, at the Spring Valley Shopping Centre on Peponi Road. Other than the OiLibya petrol station that has some life as motorists stop by to fuel, the shopping centre is almost dead.
Mavete has worked at the second hand store since it opened its doors 38 years ago, and worked with the storeâ€™s owners for 54 years. Over the years, he has seen different shops open at the centre and then close with the only supermarket there having changed hands seven times.
Spring Valley Shopping Centre is one of the many residential shopping areas that have been part of Nairobi neighbourhoods long before the swanky malls came up.
Some of these centres were constructed before Independence and were initially run by European families who came here during the colonial era . They were a crucial part of the neighbourhoods as they offered basic services including a butchery, a green grocery, supermarket, pharmacy, second-hand store and a petrol station.
Over the years, these stores have faced major competition with the coming up of newer malls offering a wide range of activities to attract human traffic but many preferred to remain as they were, giving personal service to customers whom they had known by name over time.
But sooner or later, they would have to either close down or join the competition because after all, what everyone wants is to make money by having customers come into your establishment.
Today, most of these old shopping centres have woken up to the market realities and are injecting a new lease of life on the old blocks in order to remain relevant.
Shopping centres such as Valley Arcade on Gitanga Road, Adams Arcade in Woodley, ABC Place on Waiyaki Way, Lavington Green in Lavington and Spring Valley on Lower Kabete Road were all built in the 60s .
They have in the recent past invested money in modernising the available space to attract new tenants and increase customer traffic to the shopping centres, but without putting up the mega malls that are sprouting everywhere.
However, some like the one on Peponi Road that is almost identical to the one on Lower Kabete Road, have remained the same and it is here that Iâ€™m chatting with Mavete on this Wednesday morning.
The Valley Arcade Shopping Centre is one of the oldest, having been built in the 1950s. It was originally owned by the Commonwealth Development Corporation (CDC), before being acquired by LP Holdings.
At the time, there was only a two-storeyed building with residential flats on the first floor and shops on the ground; these were converted into shops in 2005.
Recently, the centre went through a multi-million-shilling facelift that saw the available premises increase by 20 per cent, with an extra 8,000 square feet.
â€œWe saw that there was a need to renovate and provide modern amenities for the convenience of our tenants and shoppers,â€ says Jane Nderitu, a project manager at Fedha Management Company, who are managing the centre.
With the new, spruced up look, the arcade has seen a tremendous increase in customer traffic as it attracted more tenants, among them, Java Coffee House and Ecobank.
Some of the oldest clients have chosen to remain at the centre with the oldest, over 30 years being the Marketways Supermarket and General Pack Tailoring.
â€œDefinitely, shops such as Java, Ecobank, the latest entrant – Aga Khan Clinic and others have helped triple the traffic to the shopping centre over the last 18 months or so,â€ says Ms Nderitu.
â€œWe have noticed that both the old and new stores have created a win-win situation for each other by attracting a good mix of shoppers who want the convenience of eateries, shopping and services in one place without feeling too crowded.â€
The whole area has been transformed with extra parking and the opening up of a fast-food outlet at the neighbouring Oil Libya petrol station.
Just around the corner from Valley Arcade, on James Gichuru Road is the Lavington Green Shopping Centre, which was built before Independence when most of the area was owned by the French Holy Ghost Fathers, also known as St Austinâ€™s Mission.
Lavington Green, as itâ€™s popularly known, had a few shops for basic amenities. Like Valley Arcade, the first floor buildings had apartments. Over the years, the centre has undergone transformation with the construction of a wing that welcomed a bigger Chandarana supermarket a few years back.
Currently, a completely new wing is being developed in the premises. It will consist of four levels including basement parking, shops and office space.
High-end Happy Butchery is one of the oldest tenants at Lavington Green having opened its doors in the 1990s.
In 2003, it was taken over by new management who reworked the floor space to accommodate a sitting area thereby expanding the business to deliver lunch to neighbourhood office blocks.
However, the on-going construction of the new wing has affected business in the shopping centre due to reduced parking.
Ms Darlyn Mbaya, the butcheryâ€™s manager, says in order not to lose clients, they have had to accommodate the construction by being innovative by offering home or office deliveries and taking orders on phone thus allowing clients to simply drive through as they collect their shopping.
â€œOne of the major challenges we are facing with the ongoing construction has been parking and congestion. We have had to accommodate the changes in the hope that when itâ€™s done, we will all benefit from increased business in the future,â€ she said, in an interview with BDLife.
â€œWe look forward to providing our old and new customers with improved services as soon as the new wing is complete,â€ she adds.
A couple of kilometres from Lavington Green is ABC Place, on Waiyaki Way. The owners has put up a new multi-storeyed complex, which will house shops, banking halls, offices and restaurants. The new building has changed the face of the old development with its glass panelling that is being duplicated on the older premises.
This centreâ€™s strategic location has seen it attract high-end stores in the old complex, something that has continued in the new development with BoConcept, a top-of-the-range furniture store, being the first to move in, even before the scaffolding was removed.
Zucchini, the green grocerâ€™s has also moved into the new complex from the old one with a more spacious swanky store, thereâ€™s also a bakery and patisserie shop, Mamaâ€™s among others.
If Karen Blixen, of the Out of Africa fame and who the leafy suburb gets its name from was to visit her former shopping duka, she would not recognise it. Way before Kenya got independence, there was the Karen Provision Stores where the owner pumped fuel from a hand operated pump located in what grew to be Karen Shopping Centre.
The biggest change come in the last decade with the development of Crossroad Mall, which houses a Nakumatt outlet among other shops and recently the development of the Karen Square mall which sits where the famous Horseman restaurant was.
However, despite investing in attracting more traffic to their premises, some of the older centres face major challenges. As the Spring Valley Centre, along Lower Kabete Road renovates, the one thing that is hard to find is parking.
The same situation is reflected at the Muthaiga Shopping Centre on Limuru Road. Shirin Bhanji runs the supermarket at Spring Valley Centre, with her sister. Opened in 1975, she says the family business has weathered different storms but is still standing.
For her, parking is the biggest challenge facing their small complex, which unlike the one on Peponi Road is busy on a Wednesday mid-morning when we visit.
One may well wonder how these old shopping stores have opted not to put up huge constructions where they would probably make more money, but some of the owners feel they can still make a little more money without bringing down the old structures but merely renovating what is already there.
Those residents who have shopped in these locations for decades are also happy that they can still walk into a supermarket, butchery or green grocery and have the owner of the shop and the employees greet you by name, something which would not happen in the big malls.
â€œIâ€™m happy to come to this shopping centre for my shopping, stop for a cup of coffee with my friends and be served by someone who has served me for the past 20 or thirty years. You sort of feel that they are like family,â€ said one shopper who was at the Muthaiga shops.