I moved to Nairobi a while ago and here are some of things I wish I’d known before moving here.
1. Nairobi is surprisingly expensive
Call me naive but when I moved to Kenya, I thought it would be really cheap as Africa is insensitively labelled ‘poor’ and ‘developing’ in Western news. Therefore I thought items that I’m used to back in the UK would be around the same or lower in Kenya.
That is not the case, and western items and groceries tend to be very high. For example I bought salted butter the other day in a large well stocked supermarket for 750kes ($7.50)…7 dollars and 50 cents, for butter? I could buy 7 blocks of that back home. And whilst that may be true, it’s all about restructuring your grocery buying to fit the different costs.
Other items you’ll find expensive are dairy products, seeds and healthy food items like soy milk and muesli, beauty products like shampoo and moisturiser, home furnishings, new clothes, second hand and new cars, eating out and going out. It’s very easy to get through 5000kes ($50) in one night if you are going to medium to up-market expat restaurant or bar. My advice is try to mix going out with eating in, as vegetables and some meat items can be very cheap and also try going to more local places so you get a better sense of the city, rather than sticking to just expat/western style places. Expat salaries far outweigh local salaries, so be aware of the privilege that foreigners have. If you receive excellent service, please tip your waiter.
In addition, you can’t really walk easily to certain places to do your shopping so you’ll need to factor in transport to/from your destination which can also add up if you are taking taxis.
Rent in some areas is almost the same as Western cities, so make sure you draw up a budget and stick to it before coming out or you may be in for a surprising shock.
2. You can’t really ‘go shopping’
Nairobi doesn’t do high streets and it doesn’t really do pavements so it’s not like ‘hitting the malls for a day of shopping’ like you would back home. Running errands will require several trips to several different malls or shops just to find the items you are looking for. Also taking several ubers or taxis adds up to your costs and you’ll find that your Saturdays or after hours time can get eaten up, sitting in traffic chastising yourself for not having bought lightbulbs when you had free time last week.
The malls don’t all stock the same items or have much uniformity in terms of shops so you may find yourself going nuts trying to find items you are looking for. It is getting better and the opening of Carrefour (french supermarket giant) in several malls around the city is starting to create a one-stop shop feel to back home. I’ll be honest, I didn’t realise how much I’d miss Zara, Topshop, H&M, Starbucks (I hate myself for saying that), Whole Foods etc… Actually scrap Starbucks, there are loads of amazing independent coffee shops here, serving the most amazing Grown in Kenya freshly roasted beans.
Top tip – try outsourcing your food shopping to online delivery. We use FoodPlus by Chandarana Supermarket and on the whole it’s excellent and they’ll call if they don’t have an item in stock and will try to find the closest one. You could also ask your domestic help (if you choose to hire one) to shop for you as well.
For a list of the best shops to buy home furnishing items, check out my other blog post here. I miss Ikea so much but luckily there are loads of great stores in Nairobi, it’ll just take a few trips.
There are lots of items you simply can’t get here or are just obscenely expensive (today I tried to buy a cafetiere coffee press and was quoted $160…no joke). Consider bringing items from home when packing with my essential list here.
For clothes shopping, the best place is Toi Market, a massive second hand clothes store that will replace your days at the mall with awesome thrift shopping. It’s very affordable and good fun if you are up for bartering.
Get your drinking water delivered on Saturday mornings to your door by Sunny River or Bounty Water. Very affordable and reliable service. Saves you having to lug 20 litres up to your apartment.
3. Map reading skills are different to back home
The most common thing I hear on a Friday night is this interchange upon leaving the house to go out:
Me: ‘Hi. How are you?’
Uber driver: ‘Fine thanks. Where are you exactly?’
Me: ‘Breeze Apartments. Follow the pin on the map.’
Uber driver: ‘Eh? I don’t know the place.’
Me: ‘But it’s on the your map. Look at the pin on your map. Thats where I am.’
Uber driver: ‘Ok’
5 minutes later
Me: ‘Hi, have you reached me?’
Uber driver: ‘Where are you exactly?’
Me: ‘FOLLOW PIN ON THE MAP!’
This is so common and you will rage inside that your uber driver isn’t just following the map like you asked. Many local people here don’t grow up reading maps like we do back home, so presuming your driver will suddenly understand a map, pasted onto a foreign looking grid by a massive American company is an unfair expectation. Try to be calm and use landmarks to help navigate your driver. Nairobians are excellent navigators once you give them a reference point.
4. You’ll pick up an amazing hobby
I’m going to be honest. If you get domestic help and they are taking care of your laundry, ironing, shopping and in some cases cooking – you are left with a new abundance of free time. This is an extremely privileged position to be in, so please be kind to your cleaners and compensate them fairly and give them time off and a reasonable living wage. Due to your new free time, you can take advantage of the many hobbies on offer. There is so much to do and the weekend possibilities are endless, even if you choose to go out of the city or stay in Nairobi.
Rock climbing is HUGE here and we are blessed with an awesome climbing gym (Blue Sky at Diamond Plaza) and Kenyan Mountaineering Club which organises loads of weekend trips an hour and above outside of Nairobi.
You can fly to the coast for as little as $50 by flight or $7 by train, meaning you can take up kite surfing (best spots are Diani, Watamu and Che Shale) as your new monthly sport. Believe me, its huge here and a lot of expats in Nairobi invest a lot of their time and money in the new awesome sport.
Join a sports team: Volleyball, Netball, Ultimate Frisbee, Horse Riding. There are a lot of clubs and fun teams to join. Have a search on Facebook or via Nairobi Expat Social on Facebook to find a team or get one going. If you like being solo – take advantage of having Karura Forest, the lungs of Nairobi, right on your door step for a run or cycle.
Keeping fit. Although gym membership can be expensive, getting a personal trainer to come to your house can cost as little as $10 a session, which is something you should definitely take advantage of!
For a full list of activities to pick up, please read my blog post here.
Cycling is also huge here, find my post here on it.
5. It’s really easy to waste a day (in the beginning)
Traffic is insane and it can make you not want to leave the house meaning you may feel like you’ve got so much stuff to do, but instead just stay in bed getting annoyed that you are wasting a day. BUT that doesn’t mean things can’t come to you.
So Number 5 is…: It’s really easy to make the most of your day (when you hack Nairobi!)
About a year ago I realised that spending a Saturday doesn’t have to involve trying to do my shopping, getting my nails done, try and fit in a massage and see friends all in one day. A lot of the time these services can come to you and AGAIN this is coming from an extreme place of privilege so please be aware of this when reading this article. If you are going to have someone come to your place, please compensate the person coming to your house fairly and tip them, offer tea or transport costs. Extending a friendly hand in Kenya goes a long way and you’ll be amazed when the favour can be returned.
But basically now we have a gardener come to our house and tend to our plants, and I also get a manicurist, and a beauty therapist to do waxing and also a masseuse. We even organise yoga nights where friends come over and one of the very talented instructors from Africa Yoga Project leads the class any working night of the week. Having services come to you is quite common among expats here and its always good to trade tips amongst each other as to who is recommend for such services. If you want pre-approved rated services, then Lynk is an awesome website that will help you source a service you are looking for and help send over beauty therapists, gardeners and even tailors to your house.
6. You will tinder. You might even tinder for friends!
Everyone goes on Tinder here. Or Bumble. Or Happn. Or all 3! You will swap hilarious stories with new housemates and colleagues and you may even meet someone awesome! So just embrace the diverse multiculturalism of Nairobi’s dating scene and the potential disasters and highlights that come along the way.
If you are in a relationship, then simply just making new friends can feel like dating. Someone told me there is a new Bumble BFF app that helps you find friends. I say go for it! It’s hard moving somewhere new, so you might as well go all in and out yourself out there.
Other tips for finding friends:
Try joining Internations (a huge online expat social website) for their weekly Drinks on Monday’s at Tribe Hotel in Gigiri – aimed entirely at new expats coming to the city (yes, weekly drinks! That’s how often people arrive). They also host parties, monthly events and even more niche events around food, painting and hiking. Meet Up also has a good presence in the city, another social website aimed at people looking to make friends in the city.
See if your university back home has an alumni group in Nairobi. Being a big diverse city there are lots of professionals and NGO workers doing a stint here, so check out if your uni or college has a representative or alumni group in the city.
Stick a message out on your Facebook wall before you move here, asking friends if they know someone in the city. Again it has a massive expat scene (apparently 7000 in Nairobi alone?!) and most likely you’ll have a friend who knows a guy who works here (‘in tech or something’) or has a brother’s ex-roomate who moved out here (‘to like save elephants or something’).
Say YES to everything. Pottery and Wine Night at Ikigai Creative Space? Yes please! Brunch and Swim Day at Serena? Oh yeh! Film screening at Alliance Francais? Oui Oui! The more you say yes, the more people you’ll meet!
Also when you go on Nairobi Expat Housing, try meeting up with a few new potential housemates to see if you ‘click’ as they’ll likely become your weekend travel buddies or yoga pants and tv chill partner during the week.
7. Your new friends will become your family.
We are all far away from our families and our school friends, and not having that network means you’ll start to heavily rely on your group around you.
Over the last 3 years I’ve helped and in turn had friends help me do things I would never think of having my friends back home help me do. So don’t be afraid when you need ask friends to come help you go to the hospital, the police, pick you up from bars when tooooo much booze has been drink, help move house and help consume a large amount of cheese because you are leaving the country the next day and really don’t want to waste $300 worth. You’ll become each others sounding boards and eventually each others rocks.
Also you’ll do amazing things together like hike mountains, go on safari and spot 7 baby cheetahs and also rent ridiculous hollywood style houses at the beach that friends back home can only dream about. The experiences you carve together will be some of the most memorable for your life and the memories you’ll have of Kenya and the friends you make here will be truly amazing.
One day, you’ll realise it’s awesome to have this network because honestly you’ll really need it when you are so far away from home. They’ll become so incredibly close that when they eventually leave it can almost feel as heart wrenching as a break up. But it’s ok – more reasons to travel to see them for them to come back and see you.
If you have any other tips expats should know before moving here, then please jot your ideas below to help others!
If you need any advice or tips before moving here, please go to the contact page and send a message and I’ll try and get back to you asap.
We are also now on Facebook. Follow our page for daily tips and advice on living in the city.