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Nairobi faces growing risk of losing competitive edge

By XN Iraki | August 16th 2021

What makes Nairobi such a great city, contributing almost a quarter of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP)? 

What makes the city so competitive, and can the competitiveness last forever?  

It is the motivation and dreams of its people that keep the city competitive. Think of it: from childhood, people from the countryside dream of getting to the city on a one-way ticket.

They hear there is a lot of money in Nairobi, just like in the US.  

Like a giant distillery, Nairobi extracts the best brains from the rural areas and then makes them prisoners. 

After school, Nairobi is the next destination. Even those in small towns would love the tag of “Nairobian.” Even entrepreneurs are not left behind. Remember Naivas and Nakumatt?  

It is more interesting; the city gets enriched by foreigners too, who work for big companies, multilateral institutions like the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) and even diplomats, some who prefer to stay on after their tour of duty.

Nairobi is an addictive city. This diversity, which is rare in other counties, is Nairobi’s greatest strength.

Once in the city, your tribe is muted by capitalism. You are valued by the money you can make. Nakuru is close to Nairobi in terms of diversity. Noted its phenomenal growth and warmth? 

Success begets success; the few who succeed in the city serve as role models for the dreamers. That is reinforced by our lexicon: He is a “Nairobi businessman.” Rarely do we hear of a Machakos or a Meru businessman. Nairobi dignitaries even get special meals during occasions like funerals.  

Add the city being the seat of the government, which always puts Nairobi in the news.

That publicity is addictive. Its superior facilities like universities, airports, restaurants, among others, attract us to the city.

There is running water, roads, rail and power. Economists will say such big cities benefit from economies of scale. 

Inequality does not deter Nairobians; they dream that one day they will shift from Githogoro to Runda or from Ongata Rongai to Karen.  Let us not get carried away. It is the people and their motivations that drive the city. It does not matter where they come from. This leads us to the big question: will this competitiveness last?  

My answer is maybe. We got a free experiment about 10 years ago. We thought through devolution, Nairobi would lose its lustre.

It would compete with the “new capitals” created by devolution. The exact opposite happened.

The unconditional money that gets to the counties created a new pseudo elite made of county officials and employees. 

This elite, want to get away from the masses. And the easy option is either investing or living in Nairobi.

On the economic front, Nairobi is very competitive, and everyone wants a piece of it. This is why the price of land is so high; even Covid-19 could not correct it.  

Once all the land was snapped up in Nairobi, the capitalists crossed over to Kajiado, Machakos and Kiambu.  

Something else demands the use of the word maybe.

The fire in the belly of the men and women who come to the city in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s now has few embers.  

Those generations were excited by opportunities, an echo from independence. The population was low and opportunities many.

That is why there were no apartments. The lack of opportunities has made the city less attractive. It has become expensive too, which will deny it the brains. 

Another salient force is that the generations from the 1960s to the 1980s were self-made, often the first generation to come to the city.

Their children have grown up protected by their parents’ status, privileges and by wealth for some. That has made them less competitive and averse to taking risks. 

This would not be a worry if the trickle from the rural areas continues; the city would always have a cohort of self-made individuals who are highly motivated, and I must add, willing to do “dirty jobs” like immigrants to the US. 

My worry is that Nairobi is becoming a city where you spend your wealth and not create it.

Which great economic ideas like Facebook or Google have originated from Nairobi? Do not say M-Pesa, which is a rural idea. 

More worrying is that corruption could clog the streams of meritocracy that once defined the city.  

Another worry is that the city is so focused on sleep, with residential buildings and no parks, or other emotional sinks? Beyond getting a seat in a bar or watching TV, how else can you relax in the city? Particularly for the hustlers?  

Some opine that Nairobi will become an international city like New York or London, attracting capital and brains from all over the world.

Do you recall one official who said it’s a city of whisky takers? That is a valid dream. But charity begins at home. After all, a majority of Nairobians are indigenous Kenyans.  

Will handing Nairobi over to the national government make it more competitive?

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