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Working in Nairobi?

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Mario Rimardi

Living in Kenya, from Italy

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Living in Kenya, from USA

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Nairobi at a Glance

Working in Nairobi

The Kenyan economy revolves around working in Nairobi. The capital employs a huge percentage of the working population and generates much of Kenya’s GDP. Find out more about expat jobs, permits, living expenses, and taxation in our InterNations guide!

The National Economy

As the largest economy in East Africa, Kenya is the growth engine of the region. In turn, Nairobi is Kenya’s busiest business hub. More and more people start working in Nairobi as the labor force keeps shifting to the urban areas.

Generally speaking, however, plenty of employment in Kenya still depends on agriculture. Although the service sector contributes a far higher percentage of the GDP, most Kenyans are involved in farming or cattle-herding. Some toil at subsistence level, others work in huge agri-business operations. However, things are different for those working in Nairobi, but more on this below.

The country produces coffee, tea, flowers, fruits, and vegetables for the export market. Since the manufacturing sector is small, Kenya imports a lot of essential resources and equipment, like iron, oil, chemicals, vehicles, machinery, and consumer goods. This partly explains why Kenya has accrued a hefty foreign debt.

Many Kenyans – especially if working in Nairobi – also earn a living in the service industry. Tourism is a major field of employment, but communications is a key market too. The “mobile revolution” is transforming life in lots of African states.

Economic Challenges               

Unfortunately, Kenya is facing several challenges which could impede its economic growth. In 2010, 2011, and 2012, the GDP increased by 5.6%, 4.3%, and 4.1% respectively. The people working in Nairobi generated a large part of this impressive outcome.

But overreliance on exports leaves Kenya vulnerable to crises afflicting its trading partners – the Euro zone is one example. The high inflation rate (though it seems to have stabilized for now) has led to rising food prices. If one considers the famine at the Horn of Africa, this seems particularly ironic.

Kenyans are apprehensive of several political issues as well. Corruption, or a certain lack of transparency, can be a ubiquitous problem for anyone working in Nairobi.

A more pressing concern was the presidential election in March 2013. The last electoral process caused severe social and ethnic tensions to erupt. Violence disrupted the lives of many people, not only among those living and working in Nairobi. Fortunately, the electoral process in 2013 was largely peaceful again.

However, the Kenyan economy needs to grow yet more strongly and to attract more foreign investors in order to combat widespread poverty and the huge household deficit. If the Kenyan nation can weather such potential crises, the country’s expanding economy will offer new chances for its expanding population.

Agriculture and Manufacturing

The prospect of employment opportunities makes quite a few Kenyans succumb to the lure of the capital. As mentioned above, agriculture plays a smaller role in Nairobi than in other parts of the country. However, people working in Nairobi still engage in dairy and poultry farming or horticulture. Nairobi is also home to the Kenyan Coffee Exchange, where the coffee harvest is auctioned off for the exporters.  

The industry for petroleum refinement and re-export of oil-based goods is obviously located on the coast. Nonetheless, Nairobi’s manufacturing sector provides some jobs. The laborers working in Nairobi’s factories produce, for instance, cement, textiles, and processed foods. Companies like Bamburi Cement (construction materials), Unga Group (flour), and East African Breweries (beer) belong to Nairobi’s largest employers. Incidentally, neighboring Uganda has the highest alcohol per capita consumption in Africa, so brewing is a lucrative business in the region.

There is, too, a large informal industry, called jua kali. This expression derives from the Swahili for ‘hot sun’. While working in Nairobi as an expat, you will see street hawkers with makeshift open-air stalls. Jua kali is an essential source of income for the poor segment of an urban population growing more rapidly than the official labor market.

The Service Industry

For the most part, those working in Nairobi’s service sector are the driving force in the local business world. It provides for the city’s highly qualified élite, as well as the rising urban middle-class. Nairobi is a national transport hub and the center of Kenya’s hospitality industry. International hotel chains like Hilton are based in the city, and Nairobi houses the headquarters of Kenya Airways. With various international trade shows hosted at the Jomo Kenyatta Conference Centre, Nairobi is an important destination for business travel in Africa.

Furthermore, there are plenty of people working in Nairobi’s finance and real estate industries. Insurance companies, large banks such as Kenya Commercial, and micro-finance organizations abound in East Africa’s commercial center. Besides the booming communications market – names like Safaricom come to mind – numerous residents working in Nairobi address the needs of the local population. Retail, education, healthcare, and community services require an increasing number of personnel.

New Projects

To sustain economic growth and provide a higher standard of living, Kenya needs to keep investing in health, education, and infrastructure, and to revamp its tourism sector. Currently, there are various projects in the pipeline. They could offer employment to people working in Nairobi and make everyone’s life a little easier. For example, the Nairobi-Mombasa railway requires an upgrade, particularly for cargo traffic.

A refurbished road network should also come as a great relief to plenty of employees working in Nairobi. It’s not only about the boredom of getting stuck in a traffic jam. Experts estimate that hundreds of thousands of dollars per day are lost due to traffic congestions! (This figure calculates fuel costs and the loss in productivity.)

All these plans could be a convenient chance for foreign experts who are interested in working in Nairobi. However, you should take into account that such mega projects are mostly tackled in cooperation with Chinese businesses, who are currently making inroads into the African market.

InterNations Expat Magazine