By 2017, the company, which started as a small furniture and bedding shop in 1965, had 66 stores across East Africa. It pioneered 24-hour shopping and loyalty programmes in the region’s retail sector, its success also boosting other businesses in the manufacturing, retail, banking and property space.
The owners, the Shah family, modelled the company on Walmart, itself having started out as a humble family owned business. They planned to build a pan-African brand to take on entrenched southern African retail chains in West and southern Africa.
As a first string in this bow, the group snapped up Shoprite’s unprofitable stores in Tanzania and Uganda in 2014 and 2015.
Nakumatt’s success, and that of other Kenyan retailers such as Tuskys and Naivas, attracted investors seeking to get a foot in the door of this explosive growth story, which rested on a growing, well-entrenched middle class with rising disposable income and a taste for higher-value goods, which underpinned the growth of formal retail developments.
MD Atul Shah often mentioned regular visits from fund managers and private equity investors eager to buy a stake in the group. But after considering several suitors and a listing on regional bourses, the company said it preferred to increase its value with further growth before considering selling a stake.
In 2017, the company hit a wall. Pictures of empty supermarket shelves started circulating on social media, and consumers started asking questions. Nakumatt eventually admitted it had overreached itself and was deep in debt.
Many suppliers, at the end of their tether over poor credit terms and payment, held back stock, while banks have sharply pulled back credit to the private sector, including the supermarket group.
Expansion plans have been shelved and stores closed in a bid to buy time.
Investors with much-needed capital are still interested, but the company is now negotiating from a position of weakness.
The depth of its hole is unknown and there are concerns about a knock-on effect of its problems into the wider economy.
The company has laid many of its problems at the government’s door, citing interference in the business and a difficult business environment. But the company’s critics point to poor corporate governance and a lack of transparency in its operations.
This, they say, is the result of the family’s reluctance to cede control of the business. Rather than bring in investors, it funded its expansion and operations with expensive commercial debt. It opted out of listing because of concerns about scrutiny and control — even though its problems may have been avoided by going that route.
Nakumatt’s woes have put paid, for now, to its pan-African dreams. The news has also dented the dream of East Africa as the new frontier of growth for global retailers, particularly as it is not alone.
For example, local competitor Uchumi has been battling with high debt for years and has now had to pull back from its own regional expansion.
Nakumatt is also a victim of the "Africa rising" story, built on feet of clay, which seduced many companies to overinvest in expansion in the belief that they were part of an ever-upward trajectory of growth that has now proved to be elusive.
• Games is CEO of business consultancy Africa @ Work