Those who lived in the city long before we got here tell us with overwhelming nostalgia that the buses came on time; garbage was collected regularly and Nairobi Primary School (a good public school then) was where top civil servants took their children; City Council clinics worked and the city was generally safe, with no hawkers and street families hectoring window shoppers. City residents lived a decent life. It was worthwhile to live, work and study in the city.
To say that the Nairobi of 2022 has changed profoundly in ways those who were here 30 years ago can’t fathom is not hyperbole. There are a few good public schools or hospitals, the public transport system has been taken over by cartels and window-shoppers are besieged by hordes of hawkers and street children and the city is as unsafe.
In truth, cartels have captured all essential sectors – from transport, housing, water and even sewerage services, driving them beyond the reach of many.
Surely, the new administration of Governor Johnson Sakaja appreciates that a lot is needed to give the city back to the people.
That is not to say that nothing good happened in those 30 years ago. Nairobi has experienced an unprecedented infrastructural boom in the last decade that has defied projections of a glut. All the top universities and research institutions in the country are in the capital city; rural-urban migration has brought with it an abundance of cheap, reliable labour despite the challenges with public services.
Nairobi’s rotten underside is of people living hand-to-mouth, a city of strugglers. Those in low-income estates are condemned to live in the most deplorable of human conditions. For those lucky to have climbed up the social ladder, there are no recreational parks or unique entertainment spots that could lure even some of the moderate stars in the entertainment world.
What went wrong? How can the situation be salvaged? What needs to be done to appropriate value from Kenya’s wealthiest county in GDP numbers (27.5 per cent of the national GDP)?
Certainly, many people find Nairobi a good place full of opportunity but its backside is slow, unresponsive, noisy, dusty, dirty; a chaotic urban sprawl. It offers hope and peril in equal measure. Two-thirds of the three million souls who call Nairobi home spend up to three-quarters of their income on shelter, food and transport with little to spare for school fees and other essentials like health; a race to the bottom for millions.
Can a good city blossom out of the wretchedness that is Nairobi? To rival Tokyo, New York and London cities dripping with a cornucopia of opportunity (for economic growth) delights and pleasure. The shopping malls, the cinema theatres, the superb motorways, the rail network – that connects to sports stadia – have transformed most of these cities into world-class abodes.
Additionally, a critical lesson from the Covid-19 pandemic is that investing in public goods and services – education, health, sanitation, security, infrastructure – is not only critical but also prudent and smart.
Hence why the Western world shook off the ravages and the economic malaise of the pandemic despite being the most hit initially.
Sakaja has pledged to get Nairobi working. Despite its status as the Switzerland of Africa, Kenya’s image is dragged down by Nairobi, a city that has not matched up to the hopes and expectations of city dwellers; it takes in so much from residents and gives back a pittance.
Its excellent tropical climate makes Nairobi a great attraction to those running away from the frigid climate in the Northern hemisphere and the sweltering heat in Asia and the Arab world. Nairobi sits strategically between Europe and Africa and making it a city worth its status could transform the economy of the city and the country. The main airport, JKIA, and the superb conference facilities at KICC, the numerous five-star hotels dotting the city, set it apart in the region. It is home to the UN Africa headquarters and most international brands have set shop in Nairobi. The Nairobi Securities Exchange is vibrant and a good store of wealth besides investment in brick and mortar.
So why is there so much poverty despite so much opportunity?
Last but not least, Sakaja could start by saving man’s priceless asset; time.
So much time is wasted in Nairobi. A man who spends on average four hours in traffic loses two months of each living year. What a waste.
Mr Kipkemboi is Partnerships and Special Projects Editor, Standard Group.