Fleeing Nairobi for new money and serenity in small towns

Linet Wairimu Ndung’u, CEO Nimmohs Homestays, during an interview at one of her vacation rentals in Nanyuki town on January 25, 2022. PHOTO | JOSEPH KANYI | NMG

What you need to know:

  • Two years ago, at the height of Covid-19, a shift happened in Kenyans’ lifestyles. The serenity in the villages and rural areas became more appealing to urban dwellers.
  • Following job losses and the restlessness of staying in cramped, tiny apartments during the lockdowns, some city dwellers packed and moved to less crowded towns with spacious houses.

Two years ago, at the height of Covid-19, a shift happened in Kenyans’ lifestyles. The serenity in the villages and rural areas became more appealing to urban dwellers.

Following job losses and the restlessness of staying in cramped, tiny apartments during the lockdowns, some city dwellers packed and moved to less crowded towns with spacious houses and greenery, and new opportunities.

Now settling in well, they are running thriving businesses and living a more fulfilling life.

Linnet Wairimu was retrenched from a betting firm in Nairobi where she worked as Human Resource Officer. Three years into the job, she was declared redundant.

That was the tail-end of 2019. As she navigated her way through employment search, the pandemic struck, and she had to retreat to her rural village in Nanyuki.

Now a growing town, and well-versed about the area from her childhood days and the opportunities that it could offer, Linnet hatched up a new income-generating plan. She settled on homestays.

“I started Nimmohs Homestay out of an experience I had with my friends who had come from Nairobi for a funeral and had nowhere to sleep in Nanyuki. There was a shortage of affordable and clean hotels and lodges and I saw an opportunity,” she says.

The homestay concept is not new in Kenya, but it had few investors in the villages.

“At the height of the pandemic in August, I decided to open up a two-bedroom house to paying guests. Even though there was a lockdown, people came in plenty,”she says.

The demand was so high that she decided to rent another single unit for travellers on solo trips.

Her houses offered more than just accommodation. Their strategic location in Nanyuki offered guests a glimpse of the sun rising from the horizon and the beauty of Mount Kenya.

“I moved my furniture and furnishings from my Nairobi home to the homestay units in Nanyuki. My expenses were mostly for buying bedsheets because as the norm they should be pure white,” she says, adding that she used money that she had put aside as savings to spruce up the first house and took a loan for her second unit.

Nimmohs Homestay has since grown to become a marketing firm for furnished holiday rentals as Nanyuki grows into one of the leading weekend gateways and tourist destinations.

For Isaac Hunja, the pandemic made him realise that formal employment was no longer satisfactory.

He was a marketing and tech professional at Sky.Garden in Nairobi. Isaac resigned mid-last year to start a cross-fit gym in Nanyuki.

Isaac Hunja who quit his job in Nairobi to set up a cross-fit gym in Nanyuki. PHOTO | POOL

“I realised I could not keep pushing my dream further. Deep in the pandemic, I took time to research on what kind of gym I wanted to operate,” he says.

A fitness addict from a young age who has spent his spare time training people at Nairobi’s Arboretum for free, he finally decided to turn his passion into an income-generating venture.

“I would write down exercises for the day on a whiteboard. At first, few people would join me until the numbers grew to 1,000 one Saturday. And that’s when I knew fitness training could earn me money,” he says.

While in Nanyuki visiting years back, Isaac had met residents who desired a good workout space and gym. This further added fuel to the need to start his own business.

“I had already been certified in South Africa as a cross-fit coach which meant I could now train,” he says. He used his savings to buy gym equipment, one piece at a time.

He opened the doors of Nanyuki Active on February 1.

“The town is much slower than Nairobi, but people are trustworthy and welcoming and I’m hoping to grow my enterprise here,” he says.

Interior designer

As one who does interior finishes and designs for residential homes, Henry Machira relocated from Nairobi to start holiday rentals in Nanyuki.

Since 2017, he operated holiday homes in Nairobi and Rumuruti which had a good client flow but changed after Covid-19 struck.

“Because of the lockdown, there were no guests. I had to shut down and relocate to Nanyuki,” he says.

Henry Machira who owns The Turtle House and Sosian House in Nanyuki. PHOTO | POOL

Then he found another opportunity. There was a growing demand for holiday homes in Nanyuki as people sought an escape or to fulfil a thirst of spending a weekend or a week in spacious homes with greenery, something that is high-priced in upmarket estates.

“I realised that Nanyuki is the place to be,” he says.

He moved some of his furniture and decor from his house in Nairobi and furnished the two Nanyuki homes—the Sosian House and Turtle House. “I noticed that the standards were changing. People desired more tasteful homes. I ensured that the customers got that,” he says.

Desire to sit by a beach

Diani, Nyali and Mtwapa areas in Coast, where the beach is just a stone’s throw away, have found new dwellers.

Most of these new residents are from Nairobi, where they used to run online businesses or digital content creation. With a phone, a camera and a laptop, the location now does not really matter.

Instead of continuing to pay exorbitant rents for small apartments shielded from the sun and fresh air with other blocks of high-rise buildings, some entrepreneurs relocated to Coast where there can work from a beach bar or a waterfront park.

Vincent Libosso, a 30-year-old, moved to Diani two years ago. It has been a big relief, he says.

A digital content creator, he lost his job in a media company.

“I could barely survive in Nairobi. It’s a fast city. I felt like my financial tap in Nairobi was drying and I had to start a new thing elsewhere,” he says.

Vincent Libosso who moved to Diani as the pandemic pushed businesses to work remotely. PHOTO | SIAGO CECE | NMG

“My girlfriend then got a teaching job in Diani in Kwale County, and she was not so comfortable with a long-distance relationship and I needed to support her. So, I took the chance to relocate with her, as this was to also help me with the tough time that I was going through.”

In August 2020, when the government lifted the movement cessation, they hired a minivan to move their household stuff to Diani, spending at least Sh25,000 on the trip.

However, his relocation to Diani, one of Kenya’s top tourist destinations was not a walk in the park. He loved going to the beach and discovering new places, but the joblessness lingered.

He started sending pitches to hotels and restaurants that he could use his videography and audio-recording skills to help them market their services, but they were reluctant.

He took a job as a personal driver for a family living in Coast. He would later find a vegan restaurant and start working as their digital creator.

“One thing about my work is that it is flexible, I’m not tied down to one location. I could be working for clients based in Nairobi while seated in a restaurant or by the beach. Now I have created more networks and I am producing content for several establishments here,” he told BDLife.

Vincent demystifies the misconception that Coast is slow and has few job opportunities. With no plans of ever moving back to Nairobi, he is looking into starting a blog and podcast to help people explore the Coast, especially Diani.

“I feel like there is much more to what people see online. Diani is a beautiful place and sharing its story would impact a lot of people’s decisions,” he says.

He adds that most basic needs including food and rent in Diani are cheaper than in most cities, hence relocating has helped him save more money than he has ever had in his life.

On a normal day, Vincent works at Tribeearth, and in the evenings, he cycles or walks on the beach, just a few meters from his workplace.

“This is a luxurious town, but anyone relocating should remember to live within their means. There is no competition, one decent house and a decent meal is enough to help you save a lot of money,” he says.

John Gitonga, 25, is an academic writer. One visit to the Coast and a flexible working environment were enough to convince him to relocate from Nairobi during the pandemic.

“In 2020, I visited a friend. Then a lockdown was announced that I had to stay with him in Mtwapa, Kilifi County for one month. In that period, I realised how life was much better compared to Nairobi,” he says.

John Gitonga, an online writer who now lives in Mtwapa, Kilifi County. PHOTO | KEVIN ODIT | NMG

He cites sufficient security, affordable food and some services, lower cost of living, good weather and less traffic jams among the things that impressed him about the Coast.

“I would join my friend to exercise on the beach at 6 am, while watching the sun rise. It was just a walking distance from his place. That brought me peace as bad news sapped joy out of many people during the pandemic,” he says.

Shortly, he travelled back to Nairobi and packed his suitcase to join the ‘beach life’. John rented his first house in Nyali, in Mombasa County. He says houses in Nyali, an upmarket area, are quite affordable. A house that costs Sh30,000 in rent in Nyali would go for Sh100,000 in Nairobi’s Kileleshwa or even more Karen, he says.

But he found it challenging accessing some amenities, such as grocery shops having no personal car. He later moved to Mtwapa, which he describes as a cosmopolitan area with different races, nationalities, and tribes.

“I found it more homely, it was easy to interact with the neighbours, the houses were affordable, and I would freely walk late in the night without fear,” he says.

Comparing his six-year stay in Nairobi, he says, he could barely walk more than 10 meters without confirming if his phone is still in the pocket.

“I am glad that I can now pick a phone call while on the road without getting so worried,” he says.

John is not planning to return to Nairobi soon. Other than having a plan to invest in a holiday home commonly known as Airbnb, he says he had already bought land in Malindi with hopes of building himself a permanent home.

Meanwhile, as the Coast glitters, all is not gold in the region, with major businesses operating online not yet having branches in the city.

John, an avid online shopper says he has on several times been forced to spend more on delivery costs after purchasing a product online.

“In Nairobi, I would just make an order then walk to a shop in town and pick the item. Unfortunately, now I have to order and also pay for it to be delivered here,” he says.

He added that with a limited number of electronic shops in Mombasa, the price of devices such as phones and laptops are also much higher than in Nairobi which provides a variety both in quality and price. Currently, to add a little spice to his lifestyle, John goes for a morning swim every day and later goes to the gym. During his free time, he visits various attraction sites and leisure areas.

Some of the areas he enjoys on a budget are Mama Ngina Waterfront, Fort Jesus, and Haller Park. He says restaurants and street food are also affordable, not requiring one to spend so much on a day out. He also noted, with the favourable weather, that he does not have to dress up.

John, however, says anyone with plans of relocating should consider having a stable source of income as there are not many opportunities in the Coastal town.

Value for money

Ebby Weyime, 34, is an entrepreneur. Born and raised in Nairobi, she is the founder of The Grace Cup, a reusable female menstrual product firm and the CEO of Mombasa Shelf, a shop where other sellers can rent a shelf for their products. She too was bitten by the Coast bug.

Hers was however triggered by a fatal accident she survived in 2020.

“It was a head-on collision with a lorry. I don’t know how I survived with no injuries. But one thing that hit me at that moment was I was going to die before living at the Coast. I had always wanted to move here at some point in my life,” she says.

Ebby used her insurance compensation to finalise her relocation plans and later moved to Mombasa in March 2021.

“The most challenging bit about relocating is the planning. I use a moving company to do the job,” she says.

Relocating her business did not pose a challenge, as she already built an online presence.

“After attending almost all meetings virtually, I knew that it was easy for my business to survive. All I had to do was deliver to where the customer was. For the interviews, they schedule them early and that gives me time to make travel arrangements,” she says.

Ebby settled for Nyali as it was an ideal estate with shops and malls that do not require her to get into town.

“A few weeks into staying in Mombasa, I felt like that it was the happiest moment of my life. I never felt this way while in Nairobi,” she says.

She too says that housing in Mombasa is worth the rent paid.

“I would not say it is cheap. But it is value for money. A two-bedroom or three-bedroom house located near the beach is worth every coin, compared to Nairobi where a similar amount of money will get you staying in a dingy place,” she says.

She has also listed her house on Airbnb, to earn from holidaymakers coming to Coast.

Her plans? To live in Diani or Kilifi.

“Currently, I am still excited about Mombasa, Nyali to be specific. Once the excitement wanes, I will move again,” she says.

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