Frances Woodhams, a freelance writer and a mother of three takes us through her 13 years experience living and working in Kenya as an expatriate.
Living and working in Kenya
Please tell us about you and where you are from?
I live in Nairobi, Kenya and am originally from the UK.
Where do you live now? How long for?
I have lived in Nairobi with my family since 2003 but was living in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania before that for four years, so I’ve been in East Africa full time since 1999.
What do you for a living?
I work as a freelance writer and am a mum of three girls.
What’s the economic climate like in Kenya, is it favorable to all businesses or specific custom made businesses?
Kenya has been going through a significant economic boom over the past 10 years, fuelled by a very fast growing Kenyan middle class. There are still challenges in terms of infrastructure development, population growth and a high level of corruption but steps forward are visible in the form of new roads, a new regional rail line being built, a new port etc.
How does the work/ business culture differ from your country of origin? Do you have any tips for expats doing or planning on doing business in Kenya?
Things can take longer and the quality checks and balances that we are used to back home often do not exist here. There is far less recourse for the individual in business here, than at home, if things go wrong. What I am trying to say is that there is more risk but rewards and gains can be high for the savvy entrepreneur. Be prepared for the fact that Government bureaucracy is cumbersome and to do business, you need to have the correct working visas, business registrations etc.
What do you enjoy most about Kenya?
A warm, friendly atmosphere, welcoming people and year round sunshine as well as fantastic places to visit on holiday, right on our doorstep. (The famous Kenya coast/Indian Ocean and fabulous safaris).
When you compare the quality of life to your home country, how would you rate Kenya?
The quality of life in Kenya is very good with more time spent outdoors than I would be able to experience back home in England (due to the favourable climate). We also benefit from domestic help so there is more free time but the trend here is moving toward more urban, apartement living for expatriates, so lots of things are changing. Heavy traffic, power cuts, water shortages can be challenging so it’s hard to make that call between quality of life here and at home definitively.
Most expatriates moving to Africa are warned about security. Was this the same experience for you? What do think can be done to improve security in developing countries?
I think that it is fair to warn expatriates about security but the level of risk can sometimes be taken out of context and exaggerated. I arrived as a pretty clueless newlywed but yes, everyone back home mentioned security risks before I left. Security problems come hand-in-hand with a vast disparity of wealth. The only way to improve the situation would be for developing countries to have un-selfinterested inspirational leaders, accountable governments and an effective social security system. Sadly I can’t see this becoming a reality any time soon.
What are the biggest adjustments you had to make when settling in Kenya? Did you or are you still experiencing culture shock? How did the rest of your family if any adjust?
My kids have all been brought up in Kenya, so for them this is home. My biggest adjustment has been having to bring my kids up without family close by. It’s also tough when fellow expatriate friends come and go as you tend to rely on them in place of family.
Public transport in Kenya or definitely self drive?
Definitely self drive sadly. There are poorly maintained buses, mini buses or motorbikes that people use for transport around the city but they are dangerous. A commuter train network within the city should be in place in the next few years (plans are afoot) but we are not there yet.
How sufficient is the health care plan and medical attention from doctors in Kenya?
Many expatriates rely on private international medical insurance plans for emergencies. There are very good doctors based within private hospitals in Nairobi and quality of treatment, while costly, compares well with private treatment in the rest of the world, both in terms of quality and cost.
How would you rate the housing standards and general cost of living in Kenya?
The cost of living is high. Rent is high and so is the cost of electricity etc. Most households contribute toward or cover entirely the cost of a security company that supplies day and night guards to guard your home. Groceries, new clothing and private school fees are all very expensive.
Meeting people and making friends
How tolerant are the locals to foreigners?
Very tolerant and welcoming. The only time that I have felt uncomfortable is during an election year when politicians tend to stir up anti-colonial, anti-incomer sentiment for their own gains.
Was it or is it easy to meet and mingle with the local people or do you mainly mix with fellow expatriates? What advice would you give to fellow expatriates looking to move to Kenya?
I mix with expatriates and have some Kenyan friends too but fellow expatriates tend to be more open to socialising with incomers, whilst Kenyan friends already have an established support network of friends and family in place. Advice to an expatriate looking to move to Kenya? Temper expectations, be open to new experiences and learn some Swahili, as this gives a valuable insight into understanding the local culture.
Did you have a problem getting a visa or work permit? Did you tackle the visa process yourself or did you enlist the services of an immigration consultant?
Getting a work permit is tough, time consuming and costly and I did employ an accountant to help me navigate this process. It is possible to get the correct permits on your own but you need a thick skin, patience and plenty of time!
Any advice you would like to offer to new expatriates arriving in Kenya to do business or work in Kenya?
Take time to understand how business in Kenya works before making any bold changes. Be wary of working with local government institutions who might make big promises but not come through with the business you hope for. Put effective checks and balances in place to ensure that work is overseen. There is a strong entrepreneurial spirit in Kenya which makes it an exciting place to work. Keep in mind that employees may well be hustling more than one job.
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