The Town that Doesn’t Exist

With all the mania since I’ve been back from Africa, I never got around to posting this piece, on my time in Kibera, which appeared as a four-page spread in the Sunday Business Post.  Incidentally, there’s a Viewfinder feature on the people mentioned in this piece on Storyful right now. Go check it out.
Sunday Business Post, November 7, 2010

In the Kenyan capital of Nairobi, up to a million people live in a place that doesn’t exist. It does not appear on any government maps. It receives the bare minimum of services.

Officially, this city within a city is an uninhabited ‘forest’.

But the residents of the Kibera slum are no longer happy to be anonymous. Using free social media technology such as YouTube, they’re doing what no one else will: putting themselves on the map. Continue reading “The Town that Doesn’t Exist”

Trade delegation

Heading north-east to Thika to interview a coffee cooperative, I took a matatu (Hiace bus) from central Nairobi early on a Thursday morning. As I headed off, I had no idea that the road I took would be one of the most interesting things I observed that day. The ‘Thika Road’ has acquired legendary status in the Kenyan press. It is being seen as a major victory for the Kenyan government, a sign of Kenya’s movement into the future. When it is finished, sometime in 2012 if the hype is to be believed, it will become a main artery to the north-east from the Kenyan capital. There is no doubt that it will be one of the best roads in the country.

Despite only a few hundred metres being visibly paved with tarmac at this stage, it is already being hailed as a shining jewel in the Kenyan infrastructure, one other African countries hope to mimic. But it’s also a triumph that the Kenyan government can take little credit for.

The smart move, it seems, has been to get the Chinese build it, to delegate the job.

SinoHydro are overseeing the project, and their countrymen are clearly visible in their blue overalls, dotted among groups of Kenyan labourers as foremen, or driving shiny 4X4s.

What’s completed of the road, or even that which is in a halfway state, is of good quality. The road network at large, in comparison, is a slapdash criss-cross of pockmarked byways, and reflective of that is the battered national fleet. All vehicles become old before their time, aged by the terrain and kept alive through the palliative care that passes for mechanical maintenance here.

The sight of a Mini Cooper, of which I’ve seen only one, is a bizarre folly. Among the clapped-out, or soon-to-be clapped out vehicles bouncing around Nairobi, a glitzy, expensive little hatchback built for smooth city streets makes little sense at all.

But the Thika road will add to the Tsavo Highway (The Nairobi-Mombasa stretch known as the ‘China Road’) a second high-standard stretch of motorway across Kenya, built largely by Africa’s favourite trade partner – the Chinese. To overly compliment the Chinese influence puts one at risk of belittling African workers, their ineptitude an inferred corollary of the efficiency and capacity of the high-powered immigrants.

A more optimistic analysis would suggest that Kenya may merely have spotted a good thing, a source of skills transfer and, at the same time, infrastructure. Much-needed infrastructure.  Kenya has a long way to go to bring its road network up to scratch, by employing Chinese help to get it done, the by-product could be a drastically upskilled construction force. And that model is replicable across a variety of sectors.

And to the cynic, it highlights the continuance, best use and positive reversal of a tactical choice that has been a long-standing favourite here, from colonial times on to the present day. Delegation.

But that simplifies things far too much. The fact is, China and Kenya’s trade relationship pulls them ever tighter together as time passes. It has done more to enable commerce and development, the visible sort, than anything other international intervention on a surface level. Mobile phones are now ubiquitous, many of them cheap Chinese knock-offs of familiar designs. Their ubiquity has led to a price war between operators, opening their use up further to customers. The number of motorbikes on the streets has increased by a factor of five, nearly all of them ersatz Chinese brands that would struggle to sell a single unit in Ireland or the US, where top-line marques have things cornered off. The short-lived phones, the bikes, and the tuk-tuks that now pepper the cities, are an environmentalists nightmare. There is no way of recycling end-of-life phones in Kenya, meaning they end up on the side of the road, leaching heavy metals into the watercourse, and  all of the bikes are two-stroke affairs, spewing particulate matter into an already smoggy atmosphere.

But they are a new vector to prosperity for many Kenyans. Someone who can stockpile enough Kenyan shillings to buy a motorbike can become a revenue-generating piki-piki motorcycle taxi driver. Phones allow access to markets (an anomalous term – see this quasi-relevant post) and save on unnecessary journeys, a godsend when two valuable hours or more could be lost making a redundant trip by foot.

So the bikes, the phones and the roads (along with myriad other examples including the toilet roll in the header shot) are all representative of something that China has cottoned on to ahead of all other countries: Africa is not merely a pauper continent, it is an extremely valuable market. The margins may be slim and the RPU low, but there are millions of people on the continent, heretofore abandoned by global commerce.

Kenya may not have oil, it may not have strategic importance, but it has 40 million consumers and a growing middle class. And despite our prolonged ‘engagement’ with the African continent in Europe and America, China somehow got to them first.

Markham is on a prolonged journey through Kenya and Tanzania partly funded by a Simon Cumbers Media Challenge Fund grant.

God’s Cabbie

It’s amazing what business prospects strangers will pitch to you in East Africa. While walking along the street, I’ve been given the option to sponsor the university education of total strangers, and help them fund major business investments, often within minutes of having met someone. And for that reason, I’m out.

I had another Dragon’s Den experience on the road from Mombasa to Kilifi last week. Komaza, the NGO I was visiting in Kilifi, had recommended a driver to pick me up at Mombasa airport, and Osito appeared when I walked off the plane, friendly and prompt.

We chatted for the journey, and when Osito heard I was a journalist, and better still, one shooting video, he got excited. He hoped that I’d be able to film a music video for his Gospel group, or, better yet, find them a sponsor. I didn’t have time or money to fulfil his wishes on the spot, but we recorded a bit of his singing in the hope I could put it to some use.

Have a listen to Osito.

Nota Bene: This podcast was edited at midnight after a long day tramping around Kibera, while waiting for videos to render in Final Cut. Apologies for levels, popping, etc.

Markham is on a prolonged journey through Kenya and Tanzania partly funded by a Simon Cumbers Media Challenge Fund grant. Editors/producers looking to contact Markham for material or contributions from Kenya should email markham [dot] nolan [at] gmail [dot] com, or text +254 732 580 147.

Long Train Running

I’ve done two bona fide ‘classic’ journeys in my time travelling. The first was a slow boat along the coast of Patagonia, which didn’t go exactly to plan and now this, the Mombasa-Nairobi train journey. The train is an old iron snake, split into first, second and third classes, with those up front having cabins and access to a dining car for meals. €36 buys you a first-class ticket, 13 hours of relative comfort, and a 500-kilometre passage from the sweltering coast up to Kenya’s capital on the Maasai steppe.  That’s good value.

‘Classic’ travel denotes a certain olde-world charm, a sense of nostalgia. It’s a warm reminiscence of a simpler time before digital displays on train platforms, laminated plastic timetables and the swiping of smartcards. It’s steam and smoke, and polished chrome.

Of course, any owner of a ‘classic’ car will tell you that classics break down on a regular basis, are slower and less efficient than modern cars, and unless kept immaculately, demand that you sacrifice some comfort for the sake of aesthetics.

All this was present in spades when I arrived at Mombasa. I had already received a phonecall warning me not to turn up on time for the 7pm train, which would not be there, so I arrived at 8pm as per revised instructions, and would find myself hanging out on the platform until well after 2am the next morning, in hopeful expectation of a train appearing out of the dark.

When I arrived, there was a singsong going on, with a teacher from Kaugi Primary School on the guitar leading 40 or so primary school children in some folksy hymns. I took out my sound recorder to capture some of it, and drew a crowd (pictured above).

The podcast below gives a better impression of it, so I’ll leave you to listen to it.

Thirteen hours on a train is not something I’m accustomed to. The train bumped happily along the tracks, and sleeping was akin to lying down on a bouncy castle full of sugar-mad kids at a birthday party. You were gently rocked, not in the typical back-and-forth, but vertically up and down. Similarly, I felt seasick for the first six hours at the far end, having grown accustomed to the movement underfoot.

In Nairobi now for the next while, and looking forward to meeting some interesting groups of people over the coming days.

Markham is on a prolonged journey through Kenya and Tanzania partly funded by a Simon Cumbers Media Challenge Fund grant. Editors/producers looking to contact Markham for material or contributions from Kenya should email markham [dot] nolan [at] gmail [dot] com, or text +254 732 580 147.

All Change

Things change quickly here. It’s seven years since I’ve been to East Africa, but even in 2003, things were moving quickly.

My first visit was as a greenhorn 21-year-old, working for a tiny Tanzanian NGO.

Those two months were among the most isolated of my life. Internet access was sparing and expensive, but fast where it existed. I wrote emails home in rough form on a .txt file, and took a floppy disc to the local internet cafe to copy and paste it home.  Mobile phones were non-existent. Land lines were appallingly bad, and exorbitantly priced for international calls. This was pre-Skype, if you can imagine that. Shocking stuff.

Just two years later, in 2003, I came back for a sailing event sponsored by Safaricom, Vodafone’s Kenyan guise. I arrived in Arusha this time, to catch up with those I had met the time before, and cadged a lift to Nairobi and on to the coast with another competitor, Rob Allport.

Rob worked with the Maasai as a vet, and we picked up a hitchhiker in red Maasai robes to give him a lift en route to Nairobi. During the detour, I saw another Maasai man sitting squatly on a rock on the side of the road. He was draped in the same tartan-like robes and held a dark herding stick in his left hand as he gazed out over his animals. With his right hand, just as we passed, he dipped inside his robes, and pulled out a Nokia 5110, and proceeded to check his text messages.

In two years, Kenya & Tanzania had gone from being a land of paltry phone connection for the average person to being one where every man who could count goats was hooked up to the grid.

In the seven years since, things have sped up further. The two main operators in Kenya, Safaricom and Zain, are locked in a bitter mobile phone price war, and smartphone growth in East Africa is at rates not seen anywhere in the world.  Phones ping constantly, ubiquitously. The average Kenyan spends 25 per cent of their disposable income on communication, and do their banking, pay bills and open savings accounts using their mobile phones (the largest phone operator became the biggest deposit-taking bank almost overnight when they introduced a service called M-Kesho, allowing phone users put small amounts of money aside for a rainy day). Ireland was once the global leader for mobile payments. Now it’s Kenya.

Vodafone now use Kenya as a testing ground for new developments. If it can work well in Kenya, the thinking goes, it will work anywhere.
GPRS internet coverage for phones now extends deep into rural areas. Komaza, the sustainable forestry NGO who I’m currently visiting, hope to use simple phone internet forms to allow farmers send instant alerts for crop infestations. For example, when a farmer sees an insect problem, their Komaza facilitator can take a geotagged photo of the infestation, and email it back to HQ, where they’ll identify the insect, contact the local sprayer with directions to the exact tree and information on what chemical and concentration to use to treat the outbreak. This means the gap between identification and treatment can be reduced from a week or ten days to just 24 hours.
If you track the difference in connectivity in those first two years, then the following seven, Kenya’s jump is pretty impressive. They’re on a par with Ireland in some ways, ahead in many others. Check back on Kenya in ten years more, and you’ll be staring into the future.
Markham is on a prolonged journey through Kenya and Tanzania partly funded by a Simon Cumbers Media Challenge Fund grant. Editors/producers looking to contact Markham for material or contributions from Kenya should email markham [dot] nolan [at] gmail [dot] com, or text +254 732 580 147.

PS: Click through to expad.ie/map to follow Markham’s Simon Cumbers Journey in a Google Map.