My teenage daughter got extremely excited when she discovered that Nairobi was picked for Snapchat Life. Fortunately we were out and about that day doing dentists visits etc so decided to make a day of it and had some fun photo opportunities in shopping centres. I suggested, ‘send in pictures of cappuccinos and sushi’ – but after the initial euphoria and a little viewing of what was being put up on the ‘story’ (that’s probably the wrong terminology, but then I am over 40!) she ditched the idea of submitting.
When we checked Snapchat, there was someone making ugali and sukuma in their kitchen and a guy on the street in the city centre saying ‘don’t expect to see elephants and lions here’. Sadly, it was a grey day and not one of the typically fabulous blue sky ones that we love. Then, thanks to a blog reader’s comment (see last post), I learned about the backlash from the UK and the States about Nairobi being picked over their home towns (second city to be chosen in Africa by Snapchat I believe) and what a hole they thought Nairobi to be.
The comments were ignorant. Apparently many people in America did not realise that Nairobi has electricity, let alone mobile phones. They thought that running water only came from standpipes. Reading the comments was a real eye opener.
Life in Nairobi Today
- There is rural Kenya and urban Kenya and there’s still a pretty big economic gulf between them. Challenges faced by rural communities are very real but urban Kenya and the government, while having ample capacity to fix these problems, lacks the political will and sadly corruption in institutions is endemic – which simply boils down to stuff never getting done. Hence all sorts of charities and international organisations stepping in. Nairobi is the capital and has a very fast growing middle class whose spending power has been attracting big name multinational companies to town for some years now. (Google, Nestle, Coke, KFC etc). Kenya has also developed its own homegrown high end brands that can now stand up in strong competition to imported ones (foods – Pick n Peel, restaurants, supermarket chains – Nakumatt etc).
- Most people in Kenya have phones, whatever their economic background. Whether you live in a slum or a mansion, nowadays, owning a mobile phone is a priority for the majority. There are ‘charging stations’ (some even solar powered ones) where people without full time access to electricity can charge their devices for a nominal fee. This time last year, mobile phone subscriptions in Kenya stood at 32.2 million, which translates as a 79.2% mobile penetration level. That figure will only have risen in the past 12 months. Thanks to a relatively ‘bare’ infrastructure or virgin market when mobile phone networks came in around 15-20 years ago, coverage is generally great. There are surprisingly few places (apart from those that are seriously off the beaten track) where you experience no signal. The sale/usage of Smartphones in Kenya is rising hugely, the dominant make being Samsung. It’s hard to put a figure on this because of ‘grey’ imports of smartphone handsets into the country. Kenyans love Facebook, Twitter, blogging, Instagram etc. (Kenya had around 2 million Facebook users in 2013).
- We have read a lot about the phone banking revolution in Kenya. That is real. Phone banking has transformed this country from the root up. It’s just a shame that the take up is not the same across the region. (ie still hard to make a mobile cash transfer across borders) – but this is a minor gripe. Consequently, there has been a recognition of the ‘informal’ customer and banks like Equity have made it operate to have low cost accounts.
- Not everyone has access to electricity but novel solutions to this problem are being found here, mostly in the form of solar power. There is still a very long way to go. Inexpensive solar power currently only extends to a operating a few light bulbs and charging mobile phones or a radio. (When I did a phone survey to rural users a few years ago, they asked when solar will be able to power their TV). But the solar industry is in growth here and you get the feeling that we might be on the cusp of ‘the next big thing’ after mobile banking. There are power outages in Nairobi but the Kenya Power and Lighting team are in evidence within hours of a problem and generally get things back up and running.
- Traffic is terrible but no more terrible that some jams I have been stuck in back home from time to time. The difference is that these jams are predictable and happen every day. Thank goodness for Google maps revealing some nifty rat runs, though be prepared to snake through informal markets and crazy back roads with big potholes. My heart sinks when I see a traffic cop raise his hand to flag me down on the side of the road. Getting involved in a minor traffic prang fills me with dread, simply because of the total uncertainty of the outcome. In fact, dealing with the local police over any issue gives me cold shivers – best avoided.
- Access to clean water in rural areas is also a problem. The hunt is on for effective, inexpensive water purifying solutions that has a strong take up. The City Council water supply in Nairobi is a bit sporadic (we get supplied by the mains on one day of the week and so have enough underground storage capacity to last us 7 days) but we did have the council water quality tested recently and the results came back as ‘highly satisfactory’ for consumption which was pleasing. Water that you buy from ‘bowsers’/water trucks, tends to be sourced from boreholes and can often be of dubious origin. We filter water for cooking and I must admit, I buy purified drinking water from the supermarket.
- Goes without saying that the infrastructure is struggling to keep up with population growth and a massive arc of development. This rainy season has brought about massive flooding in Nairobi with overflowing sewage literally running in the streets. At the same time, new office buildings are state of the art, shopping centres, bars and restaurant chains abound and there’s nowhere better for a great cup of coffee. Lots of dichotomies there.
- People are willing to help. Society is open and very friendly. Any problem can be overcome, but don’t try to impose impossible standards; let it happen a different way. Due to the lack of any kind of effective social security system, life for the majority of Kenyans is very tough. It’s all about hustling to survive and I guess people not born to this culture should try to appreciate that and show a little patience.
- Sadly, the crime rate is high, not helped by the fact that guns flow relatively freely ‘under the radar’ and again, institutions suffer from corruption. Driving or walking at night is not safe but it does not mean that we don’t do it, we are just aware of the fact that there are risks. In fact, there are more risks in day-to-day life than you might experience back home.
- Outsiders or foreigners tend to feel a sense of freedom when they come to live in Kenya. Apart from the friendly welcome and fantastic weather year round, I think that this comes from the fact that you need to be inventive and open minded to make the best of life and there are possibilities wherever you look.
p.s. Had a great picnic breakfast in the Nairobi National park at the weekend. It was a bit muddy and there were a few minibuses stuck here and there but (aside from plains game) we saw a huge male lion sitting by the road as we drove out. Not many capital cities where you can experience that.
Jackson Biko got some friends to write about why they love Nairobi here: