The virtues of being a hustler
The most stable city in east Africa, Nairobi feels like not just the capital of Kenya but also the entire region. It is without a doubt the place where ambitious, entrepreneurial, and tech-engaged Africans want to be—and its reputation as a “Silicon Savannah” increasingly attracts foreigners as well. The city’s continual upward growth is reflected in its very architecture as sleek high-rise office towers and apartment complexes crop up more and more in every corner of the city. Shops, hotels, and restaurants are also on the rise—this year, Nairobi hosted its first-ever Restaurant Week in January. However, this relative stability has been called into question more than a few times in the past year, particularly from the looming threat of attacks from Somalia-based terrorist group al-Shabaab. But known for its hustler spirit, Nairobi is undaunted by this challenge. This year, whether it was proving the efficiency of its seemingly haphazard matatu (public transportation) system or addressing urban crime with an extensive street lighting project, the city remained ambitious and resilient.
Hub for progress
Nairobi’s renowned tech scene hosted its first-ever Google Solve for X conference in July, bringing successful and budding innovators together to collaborate on how to use technology to solve some of Africa’s biggest challenges, including disaster response, agricultural productivity, and vaccine access.
The most prominent example of tech-fueled engagement in Nairobi came in the wake of the Westgate attacks, when a Google Doc titled “#WeThePeople” was created to aggregate questions Kenyans wanted answered by their government, which many felt mismanaged the response to the attack. This reflected a wider trend of how Nairobians used their widespread connectivity—and the strongest Wi-Fi penetration in the region—to further political aims and to serve as a platform for public debate.
Nairobi initiated a massive project in 2014 to ensure more of its streets are lit 24 hours a day, an impressive undertaking given the fact that very little of the city is currently lit at all. Officials hope that in addition to deterring crime, more visible streets will drive up round-the-clock commerce. But the initiative is targeting not only affluent neighborhoods like Westlands, but also areas that are often cut off from city services, including Kibera, Nairobi’s largest slum, as well as neighborhoods home to the city’s middle and lower classes, like Buruburu, Kahawa West, Embakasi, and Eastleigh.
Nairobi only just managed to shed its criminal reputation of the 1990s, and it’s now battling a very different beast: al-Shabaab. In the year since the terrorist group chose a suburban shopping mall as its battlefield, Nairobi has had to contend with other deadly attacks by the group on public transportation as well as a popular secondhand market. However, security in public buildings—which used to be ceremonial rather than functional—has stepped up considerably, including the introduction of closed-circuit cameras, more police funding, and stricter immigration controls. While some residents remain wary of malls and nightclubs that have been identified as targets, life in Nairobi steadfastly goes on.
Nairobi, with its abundant green spaces and urban safari park, has earned itself the nickname “the green city under the sun.” In addition to providing green space, Nairobi’s parks serve as important political sites—in July, Raila Odinga, the former prime minister and fierce critic of incumbent President Uhuru Kenyatta, held a peaceful 10,000-strong rally at the central Uhuru Park.
Kenya’s consistent stability relative to its conflict-prone neighbors means the country has a long history of hosting refugees. Nairobi’s Eastleigh neighborhood is home for the largest of these groups—the Somalis—but the reputation of the area once known for bustling markets in “Little Mogadishu” has been strained in the wake of repeated attacks by al-Shabaab. In April, Nairobi police raided the Eastleigh streets, arresting anyone found without identification and incarcerating many unlawfully. These rights violations have since spurred broad and much-needed conversations about immigrant rights and refugee integration in Nairobi. In the midst of this tension, groups affiliated with the Nairobi-based Somalia NGO Consortium are offering skills development to both Somalis and Kenyans in areas like conflict resolution and communication skills.
Several months ago, researchers at the University of Nairobi, Columbia, and MIT published the first-ever matatu map. The diagram proved that the system, which is comprised of informal minibus taxis and 130 routes, may be unregulated but far from inefficient. Around the same time, the Kenyan government passed a law requiring the minibuses to stop using cash and to introduce a card payment system. The law, meant to help standardize the sector, is being met with resistance from drivers but with cautious optimism from consumers, who are vulnerable to unpredictable fare hikes.
With a growing fitness industry, more and more Nairobians are signing up for gym memberships, yoga, and aerobics. The city also boasts East Africa’s only recreational climbing wall. Nightlife is bustling too, with international musicians like Talib Kweli and 2 Chainz making their Nairobi debut this year, shaking up the music scene dominated by local, beloved groups like Just A Band and Sauti Sol. (The latter recently won the MTV EMA Best African Act Award.)
Ayenat Mersie spent one year in Nairobi in her childhood, went to kindergarten there, and was later haunted in her adolescence by the sweet memories of freshly made chapati bread and infectious sunshine. She recently decided to move back there to work with an agricultural tech startup and has rekindled her love for the vibrancy, resilience, and hustle of Nairobi.