One of the first things I like to do when entering any new country is pay a visit to a nearby supermarket; a stroll down the aisles provides a unique and informative view of the country and the people who call it home.
So it was that when I first arrived in Nairobi, I stopped in at the Nakumatt on Koinage Street in the city center, not far from my home at the Intercontinental Hotel. And in a back corner on the upper storey of this two-floor supermarket, something quite curious caught my eye. Not far from the cleaning rags and power strips, there was a loose clutter of machetes on sale. And next to the machetes were offered a collection of solar panels of various sizes and power configurations.
This tickled my sense of irony. I took a blurry snapshot of the pairing and made a humorous post on my Facebook page. But as I came to spend more time in Nairobi, and began to get a better appreciation of its people and culture, I came to realize that this strange juxtaposition was an astoundingly apt metaphor for life in this part of the world.
If you stroll into a Safeway in the US or a Tesco in the UK, I can guarantee that you will find neither machetes nor solar panels for sale. One is too primitive; it would be viewed as a weapon rather than a tool. The other is too advanced; western consumers have yet to insist on the kind of empowerment they would need to wean themselves of dependence on utility companies, that empowerment is a necessity of survival here. Judging by empirical evidence, it would appear that US and UK supermarkets deploy their limited shelf space more profitably by offering us a greater choice of potato chip and breakfast cereal flavors than you could find here.
That theme of shudderingly primitive and astonishingly advanced permeates Kenyan life. For instance, Kenya is the world leader in mobile payment systems, both in terms of technology and penetration. Not the leader in Africa. Not the leader amongst developing countries. The world leader. No other country comes close, not even advanced countries with otherwise high technology penetration rates like Singapore, Korea, or the countries of Scandinavia (I’ll do a full post on MPesa and the unique market conditions that caused it to grow and flourish soon). But this breathtaking level of innovation is often limited to areas of narrow focus, and conditions beyond those margins are truly barbaric; the other day, for example, I learned from my bosses Katharyn and Sreeram that the number of mobile phone users here exceeds the number of toilet paper users.
So there you have it. A microcosm of life in Kenya. Machetes and solar panels. On sale at a Nakumatt near you.