Immediately you step-off the noisy and brightly coloured public service minibuses, a blast of hot air mixed with dust flashes across your face and a din replaces the blaring music you’ve just left behind.
Welcome to Nairobi’s Eastleigh estate, you are now at the global commercial hub of Somali entrepreneurship.
Here, paradox reigns supreme. Stores selling Islamic literature and recordings of the Koran sit right next to shops piled high with khat, a mild stimulant herb much loved by Somali men.
Motorcycles ferrying goods and people are fitted with ambulance sirens in order to manoeuvre through grid-locked traffic.
Here, all the rules you learnt in driving school are broken; it is probably the only place in Kenya where you can drive on the right side of the road!
All this pandemonium, however, masks the real story of Eastleigh; that of bustling business and cut-throat competition.
Capitalism finds its real home here; with small businesses coexisting alongside big establishments. They even compete!
One of the most popular investment avenues is the restaurant business.
Somalis love their food; it stems from a long tradition of contact with Arabs and Italians, both of whom uphold culinary delights in high esteem.
After many hours of hard work — shops in Eastleigh open as early as 6 am — many businesses close for lunch with attendants raiding the countless restaurants that dot every corner of Eastleigh.
You could be forgiven for thinking this estate has the most restaurants per square kilometre in Kenya.
Wardheer Restaurant and Snacks, Big Mack Two, Chess Café, Al-Amin Restaurant, Gulf Palace Restaurant, the list is endless.
“One of the key investments in Eastleigh is the restaurant business,” says Paul Kioko, who is the manager of Kilimanjaro Food Court, popularly known as KFC. “We receive customers from all over Africa, Dubai and Europe, therefore, we need to be able to invest wisely and make our customers feel at home,” he added.
KFC sits at the epicentre of business and has become a magnet for Somali businessmen, expatriates and Kenyans looking for alternative treats.
The food here features an all-rounded menu that includes Somali cuisines, African dishes and an array of fast foods.
“The day I ate in Eastleigh,” says Selma, “I felt like I was in a Moroccan wedding. The portions were huge, the meat was so tender and the spicing was perfect,” said the Moroccan student, who recently visited the estate
This success story is being replicated across town.
KFC has just opened another branch in Nairobi’s Upper Hill area while other restaurants such as Al-Yusra and City Star have opened up in the Central Business District (CBD).
Speculations remain rife over the source of wealth that fuels the economy in Eastleigh.
To answer that, one has to understand the intricacies of the tightly-knit economic networks that characterise how Somalis do business and relate with each other.
You can call it informal socialism, or even better, ethnic cooperatives.
Most business ventures are funded by a consortium of distant relatives; cousins, aunts, uncles and in-laws.
For more than two decades, they have perfected the philosophy of pooling resources together for a greater good.
Most of the times, it has worked, and the times it did not, you really don’t have to bother about it. Somehow they spring back and continue from where they stopped.
Remittances from the diaspora have also added to the fast-paced tempo of Somali businesses. These money transfer are facilitated by a unique system known as Hawala.
Companies such as Dahabshiil and Kaah Express are at the forefront of these services.
The word ‘express’ attached to a company’s name bears deep significance. Money sent from the US is paid to the recipient in Nairobi instantly.
“Hawalas are very important when discussing Somali economics,” says Dahir Sheikh Ahmed, a member of the Eastleigh Business Community. “They are very effective and at some points, they are even able to deliver money to war-torn places like Somalia, where NGOs and UN agencies cant reach.”
Yet, on many occasions, money-transfer companies have come under scrutiny with accusations of money laundering, tax evasion and support for terrorist activities.
The biggest manifestation of this phenomenon came after the 9/11 attacks, when the US forcibly shut down the operations of Al-Barakat, which was the biggest Somalia-based remittance company at the time.
While the older generation haggle over the prices of commodities, children attend Quran schools known as Dugsi.
They are another prevalent facet of Somali society and life in Eastleigh. In fact, they are the alternative curriculum of early childhood education.
According to an article published by Bildhaan, a Somali studies journal; “Observers have noted that children who attend Quran schools tend to pick up learning at the formal school much faster.”
Over the years, schools have opened up in Eastleigh to serve the education needs of the younger generation.
It has, however, been hard abandoning the role of the Dugsi. Teachers have responded to this by combining both systems of education and coming up with an integrated one.
Under this system, the first lesson of the morning could be on the Quran, followed by science or mathematics and then a lesson in Arabic studies.
Macallin Hussein, a Koran teacher at a madrassa in Nairobi, says that this system of education is very limited to few estates, but might increase in the long run.
“The spread of madrassas has encouraged this system of education,” Hussein says. “So that as students learn Koran, they also do not fall back on formal education.”
Buildings in Eastleigh come up like paper castles. A mall here, a building there, a block of apartments to the right and more unfinished buildings everywhere you look.
Here, real estate is a gem. Rent rates have spiked over a very short period.
Land developers are sweating as they try to meet the seemingly insatiable demand for an unending list of tenants.
It is an architects’ Mecca, a bazaar for contractors; its like a permanent parking lot for construction equipment.
Tucked along the corners of many streets in the neighbourhood are booking offices for different bus companies.
You can count as many as 10 different companies such as Maslah, Ocean Bus Services, Gateway, Dayah, e-coach and Bilal.
They link Eastleigh and its residents with different parts of the country such as Mombasa, Garissa and refugee camps such as Kakuma and Dadaab.
Airline companies such as African Airways Express, Jubba Airlines and Daallo Airlines offer transport to different parts of the world.
These planes carry more than passengers and ordinary cargo. They ferry khat, a cash-cow for many Somali businessmen.
Everyday at 3 p.m, pick-up trucks cruising at break-neck speed make a ceremonious entry into Eastleigh carrying sacks of khat.
Some of the cargo is off-loaded and distributed locally while another batch is prepared, packaged and sent to the airport for exports in the Middle East, Somalia and the UK.
Some estimates state that up to $800,000 worth of the mild stimulant is exported daily by Somali businessmen.
“Khat was an important business venture during the 80s and 90s,” says Ahmed. “However, there is a tendency that when Somali traders make money out of it, they no longer want to work in it.” The waning interest in this business endeavour is related to the fact that khat is considered haram or prohibited by Islam.
Globalisation is causing Eastleigh to embrace diversity of businesses and division of labour.
If you have a keen eye, you will notice something interesting: Every street in Eastleigh has at least one pharmacy.
Kipanga Athumani Street, which leads to the residential quarters of Eastleigh, has nine pharmacies, some right next to each other; call it health consciousness or hypochondria.
If you one isn’t satisfied with the menus of the restaurants, the Second Avenue is fully laden with snack stands.
On offer are Somali cookies, dates and halwa, a sweet type of pastry
Everyday at 4 pm, young Somali men go around the malls selling different kinds of snacks.
You never get to experience hunger here and the pricing is quite convenient too. Think of it as quality food with a Chinese price tag.
Speaking of the Chinese, they are also here. They deliver textiles, electronics and a number of goods that are stocked in many shops in Eastleigh.
The language of money is a universal one in case you were worried about language barriers.
“Here, success is not about the beautiful business plan you have in mind. It is about taking risks,” says Suleiman Abdullahi, a university student who has lived in Eastleigh all his life.
“All the guidelines in the rulebook of entrepreneurship are broken or proven wrong. Risk plays a major component of the economy, but there is something more important; in Somali it’s called indaadheeg. Audacity.”
Away from the shiny malls and the warm ambience of Eastleigh’s restaurants, a different story is told by business stakeholders.
It is a tale of how they are forced to endure the horrid stench of raw sewerage, potholed roads and an indifferent local authority.
These factors have combined to make Eastleigh a king-sized dumpsite.
Recently, a high court ruling on a case that was filed by three Somali businessmen stated that the Nairobi City Council shouldn’t collect taxes from over 3,000 traders until basic services are delivered to the residents.
Traders here continue to pontificate about the role they play in the country’s economy; creating employment opportunities for thousands of Kenyans, while attracting foreign investment and finance.
From khat to clothing and hospitality, this tiny neighbourhood continues to play a role in shaping a country determined to be a middle-income nation by 2030.
“We may not be the backbone of this country’s economy, but we play our bit. It would help to get a little incentive from the authorities concerned,” says Suleiman Abdullahi whose family also runs a number of businesses in the area.
“Although it is difficult to spot how things work, one certainly feels that there is good liquidity” says Joakim Arnoy about Eastleigh, a masters student from Norway. “I enjoyed it, it really felt like a Middle-Eastern bazaar.”