A sign on Chaka Place in Nairobi’s Kilimani stood out like a sore thumb for a few days. The sign written in English and Chinese did not stay up for long following an uproar on social media.
It simply said that Kenya, like many other countries where Chinese immigrants have settled, finally has its own Chinatown.
Signage aside, the Chinese in Kenya have settled in, creating a little hub in Nairobi where they eat, shop and visit clinics as authentic as they are in China.
Unlike most Chinatowns around the world that take up large spaces, in Kenya they have set up businesses in pockets of spaces.
There are two Chinatowns in Nairobi’s Kilimani; one at Chaka Place and another near Yaya Centre.
You can hardly miss them as eyes are drawn to the bilingual signs in the thriving community of shops and restaurants with a variety of produce from meats to dried foods.
There is a supermarket, a grocery, butchery and a store with several live fish and shellfish. The immigrants and a few Kenyans helping in the back run many of these. At the corner, there is a Chinese herbs clinic.
Some food shopkeepers are willing to speak to us but after a few minutes of nodding and trying to communicate through their Kenyan employees as translators, it proves a hard task. Some shy away and cover themselves when they see a camera.
A few kilometres from this first Chinatown, there is another with container shops, landmarked by dragon-entwined lampposts and bilingual signs.
There is a supermarket at the back, barbershop and porcelain shops. The restaurants are small, most of them with just a kitchen, two benches and plastic stools.
This Chinatown is more spacious and more open than the first one. In the parking lot, men smoke Chinese cigarettes.
The shops open either in the morning or in the afternoon, unlike Kenyan shopkeepers who keep their doors open from dawn to dusk.
One of the managers explains that each shop owner has his own targeted clientele hence they do not all open or close at the same time.
Another shop owner said in the mornings, he is usually at work elsewhere and comes to the restaurant in the afternoon.
“I have other things going on and my brother whom I work with usually goes to the dry port in Embakasi most mornings before we meet here,” he says, adding they import most of the products that they sell in Chinatown that they pick from Embakasi.
He says he is from mainland China. He came to Kenya to seek a better life given the overcrowding back home that made life hard to cope.
Although the supermarkets have instant noodles, cookies, and crackers, there are also fresh foods from Kenya. In the supermarket at Studio House Chaka Place, the butchery section is the first thing that one notices. There are different types of unprocessed meats.
China’s population has swollen to nearly 1.4 billion people and this is many mouths to feed. In 2017, more than 35,000 processing and manufacturing plants churned out food for the residents.
According to the International Migration Report by the United Nations, there are over 10 million Chinese immigrants all over the world and a Chinatown in every major city in the world.
But why settle in Kilimani?
Nicholas Agola, a consultant at the Chinatown says that the Chinese are calculative and they picked Kilimani out of convenience.
“They like to be closely knit and also desire to be safe given that they are a minority here. The Chinese Embassy is just a few minutes’ walk from Kilimani and so that they would settle here is a no-brainer,” he says.
The second Chinatown is built next to Xinhua News Agency as well as China Global Television Network Africa headquarters. This means they have a ready market for their products.
“They have a niche market and it is not by chance that they built their businesses around the Chinese population. This means that they expect hundreds of clients from these offices to frequent their shops, supermarkets and restaurants daily,” says Nicholas.
Language poses a great barrier for the Chinese in Kenya and Nicholas who studied International Relations at the Beijing University speaks the language fluently, so he spends most of his days at the back office teaching the Chinese English.