Foreign Policy Blogs

Nairobi – A Hard Road to Travel?

Source: Wikimedia, User: Simisa/Hansueli Krapf

Source: Wikimedia, User: Simisa/Hansueli Krapf

NAIROBI is often in the international news for the wrong reasons, such as the floundering government attempts to regulate the chaotic matatu, minivan and buse services that are still widely used by Nairobi’s poorer commuters.

The criminal activities of mafia-like gangs such as the outlawed Mungiki sect, which originally stems from members of Kenya’s influential Kikuyu tribe, also make for lurid newspaper headlines.

The group was recently blamed for a series of arson attacks and beatings against Uber drivers in Nairobi. Control of the revenues brought in from matatus and other forms of public transport is a popular way of raising money by Kenyan gangs; Uber’s technology is disrupting established taxi firms and undercutting prices since it arrived in January last year.

Parts of major Kenyan cities like Nairobi are strongholds for groups like the Mungiki, which explains why the United States’ Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC) gave Kenya a crime rating of “critical” in its 2015 Crime & Safety report.

But the same report adds that thousands of US citizens visit Kenya safely each year, most passing through Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. The country’s tourist organisations have developed several systems to protect travelers as part of their bid to lure visitors from overseas.

The Kenyan Tourist Federation (KTF) runs a 24 hour Safety and Communication Centre (SCC) which monitors the security situation in the Kenya’s tourism circuits, including in Nairobi, with extra vigilance during elevated risk periods such as elections.

Imelda Ndomo, corporate communications officer at the KFT, commented: “The KTF-SCC works together with the relevant authorities to promote security for the tourism sector. These include the Tourist Police Unit, the Department of Tourism, Tourism operators, Kenya Wildlife Service and Kenya Tourism Board.”

Apart from coordinating security assistance to tourists and tourism operators in case of emergency, the KFT also also provides tourists planning to visit the country with useful information such as the requirements for traveling to Kenya, weather conditions, and safety precautions to take while traveling around the country.

Tourism floundered in the aftermath of the notorious 2013 attack at Nairobi’s Westgate Shopping Centre, carried out by Al Qaeda’s affiliate in neighbouring Somalia, Al Shabaab; but  now a series of international conferences during 2016 has raised hopes for a successful year for the city’s tourism industry.

Among the conferences is the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, where trade ministers from around the world will gather in Nairobi for the group’s fourteenth session in July, and the inaugural African Conference for Human Computer Interaction, which is scheduled for a weeklong stay in Nairobi in late November 2016.

Travel restrictions to Kenyan destinations, imposed in the wake of the Westgate attack in Nairobi, were lifted by the US and many European governments in 2015. A new terminal, Terminal 2, became operational at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in April 2015, growing Nairobi’s passenger capacity by 2.5 million annually.

Elliot Kratt, a British citizen who moved this year to work in Nairobi  at a local security consultancy, found a thriving commercial centre there. He says he found it easy to build professional networks and establish strong working relationships with clients from both multinational and Kenyan businesses in the city.

In contrast to his experience of working in London, relationships with Kenyan clients tended to be stronger and more direct at all levels of business, with Kenyans generally very enthusiastic about doing business across sectors.

There is a healthy mix of ethnic groups from across Kenya present in the city, as well as large white, Indian, and Asian communities. While economic inequality is an issue in Nairobi, there seems to be increasing levels of integration and harmony between individuals of different socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds.

But Elliot does caution that travelling around Nairobi can be challenging, although the city is well connected via taxi services and matatus.

He warns: “These can be unsafe for both Kenyans and particularly foreign nationals. For individuals of perceived wealth, negotiating prices for taxis acts can be problematic and is an impediment to their use. Depending on where you live in Nairobi, private vehicles or Uber taxis are the easiest, safest and primary means of transport.”

Adam Lakhani, the Head of Information at Salama Fikira, the firm where Elliot works, also took time to speak to African Business in a personal capacity about his experience of living in Nairobi.

He acknowledges that crime in Nairobi remains a “constant concern”, but added that this was no more significant than in any other major urban centre with a significant disparity in income and standards of living.

More serious for daily living in the city is the clogged, polluting and creaking transport infrastructure, which acts as a serious check on efforts to improve living standards for the average Nairobian.

He explained: “Nairobi suffers from serious traffic congestion. Anybody who has landed at the airport and tried to reach pretty much anywhere during rush hour will know this. I think my personal record to travel approximately 20 km is three hours. The rainy seasons consistently present a problem. New roads are quickly degraded and car swallowing pot-holes emerge overnight which makes for very dangerous driving conditions, particularly during hours of darkness.”

But Lakhani was also keen to stress how quickly the city was transforming, citing the significant role played by Chinese companies in the development of its infrastructure. The new highways and bypasses these firms constructed are built to a high standard and should provide long term improvements for the ordinary Nairobian.

Between American technology companies disrupting gang monopolies with cost efficient and significantly safer taxi services, and Chinese firms overhauling the Nairobian cityscape, what it means to live in Nairobi is changing rapidly.

Kenya’s capital could one day come to rival global hubs, such as Dubai, Istanbul or Shanghai, which have recently emerged as global cities to both visit and do business in. But first they will have to fix all the pot-holes.



Neil Thompson

Neil Thompson is a freelance international relations analyst whose work has appeared in the Diplomat, the International Security Network, Geopolitical Monitor, The Independent and various other publications. He holds an MA in the international relations of East Asia and has lived in China for three years and is presently based in London.