Saturday, September 8, 2012

Big Decisions: First Thoughts on Nairobi

As some of you know, I'm currently in Nairobi, the capital of Kenya, to investigate potential job opportunities and the prospect of moving here for a significant amount of time. It's only been four days since I arrived (out of a total of two weeks), so my impressions are still being formed, but for now, here are a few of my early observations.

Still the Developing World, for Better or Worse

Nairobi, while definitely a step ahead of Accra on many dimensions, still has most of the essential hallmarks of a developing world city. Getting around by foot is a tricky balancing act of avoiding getting hit by a car, tripping over the unpaved sidewalks (when there is a sidewalk), or falling into an open sewer. The water, electricity, and Internet go out every so often, and corruption is still a major problem at just about every level. On the other hand, it also means that you can live comfortably on a relatively small budget. I think I'm paying $14 a night to stay in a humungous apartment with a bunch of other cool young people. Life here isn't dirt cheap, but it's not bad either. On the whole, the feeling I get walking around is that it's basically a bigger Accra.

But Boy Is It Developing Fast

On the other side of the token, I've never seen so much construction going on anywhere, especially when the housing market has gone bust in most of the Western world. There's a huge demand for luxury real estate fueled by the rapidly growing economy. Kenya's come a long way in recent years, and there's no sign of a significant slow down. Unlike any other Sub-Saharan African country I've been to, the quality of life here borders on what I could expect in some of the poorer parts of Eastern Europe. There are a number legitimate malls, hotels, and restaurants. I've actually eaten surprisingly well including delicious pizza (better than any I had in the UK, actually), Thai food, Chinese food, Egyptian food, and of course, Kenyan food. It's not quite New York, but again, it's not bad either.

So Much Opportunity

I've spent the last few days exploring the local tech scene, and while I knew there was a lot going on here, I've still been really pleasantly surprised. Not only are there a growing number of interesting tech companies working on important problems, but there's also a burgeoning ecosystem cropping up around them. The iHub, an open tech space/incubator founded in 2010 by the noted tech blogger and entrepreneur, Erik Hersman, is the most typical example, but there's much more going on than just that. A number of other incubators have popped up like 88mph and the M:Lab, and the iHub has expanded its presence into consulting, user experience testing and training, and industry research. The African tech scene has also finally caught the attention of venture capitalists, so we're finally starting to see some serious money flowing into the ecosystem. All of this is to say that there's a pretty high demand for people like me. It's a nice place to be.

And So Many Interesting People

I've been extraordinarily lucky over the last few years that I've been surrounded by absolutely incredible people, whether it's been at an academic institution, working for a cool company, or on the road. And the good news is that the people here tend to be very interesting as well. There are lots of smart, motivated, passionate, and adventurous people – in other words, exactly who I like to be around. The tech scene has a critical mass of people and the expat community is expansive. I've only been here a few days, and already, I have a number of options for ways to spend my afternoons and evenings. I feel like if I actually moved here, there would be far too much going on for me to ever be able to do.

So those are the thoughts for now. I would say the verdict is still out on whether I'll stay here for long, but it's been a mostly encouraging few days. Stay tuned for more!


Anna D said...

Hey Ben! Sounds like things are off to a good start over there!! Some of the start up incubators and spaces in this blog sound very familiar - when i was in Kigali, Rwanda in July i visited their tech/start up space K:Lab, and gave a talk to a group of young entrepreneurs from a variety of backgrounds (but mainly tech, which was a bit ironic given what a tech retard i am...) who were part of the recently founded iHills group! And i agree, the pace of change in Africa is rapid and relentless, though most SMEs still dont make it past the first year for want of investors. But definitely an interesting time to be in Africa. xo Anna D. p.s. I was wondering how your marathon running friend with the injured knee had faired all last week, and then lastnight i came home and he was sitting at our dining table having dinner!! So i got to ask him firsthand :-)

Unknown said...


I continue to enjoy reading about your adventures. Good luck, bud, and keep posting. We'll have to catch up again in some country some time.


Unknown said...

Anna, thanks for the message. Super interesting to hear about your experiences too! And what a coincidence to run into Jacob -- glad he's up and about again. :-)

Eric, thanks so much, man! Looking forward to catching up in person one of these days.

susiel said...

Ben, although we all miss you we are very proud and excited for you. You are a pioneer and you should follow your dreams. What a great opportunity you have to contribute your knowledge and skills to this industry in Africa. Best of luck to you.

Love, from all the Hechtmans'