How the Somali community built a business empire away from home

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By TSIM reporter

The uniquely growing Somali investment in Nairobi has also attracted banks and other service-providers, demonstrating that urban refugees are not necessarily a burden to the State and that instead, they can also become an economic asset.

A loud hooting motorcycle flips past, another one answers from a distance as vehicles jostle for space to tap passengers going to Nairobi city Centre.

The space they are competing to find has been taken over by a herd of about 100 white goats waiting for buyers. On the other side of the road is a chain of small shops selling phones and other portable electronics. Behind them, a huge mall stocking clothes and curtains in one of the busiest shopping locations in Nairobi’s Eastlands.

Welcome to Eastleigh. The little Mogadishu largely dominated by Somalis who have become top businessmen and women in their host country Kenya.

It is a country within a country and the businesses here thrive with Somali youth speaking fluent Swahili and English as customers remain spoilt for choice.

Inside the Amal mall near the third Avenue, we meet Jibril Mohamed. He is literally buried inside roll of curtains of different qualities and sizes. Beside him, Somali youths sit in a line as sewing machines rattle as if competing.

Jibril has employed Moses Otieno to be his key tailor in the buzzing mall and they have been in this arrangement for more than five years. There are many such arrangements in other malls as well with Kenyans pairing with their Somali brothers and sisters to drive business

“He has become a great friend apart from being my employer. His work is satisfying and that earns me more clients here. We connect so well despite our different backgrounds and for me this is home already as we are very used to each other,” Mr Mohamed said.

These partnerships have seen a joyful coexistence between the Somalis and the locals with religious barriers set aside and focus put on business realizing huge profits.

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.”

The Eastleigh estate founded in 1921 as a colonial government’s allocation for Asians is now a global commercial hub of Somali entrepreneurship.

In a glaring paradox though, 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.

The Somali community has dominated all manners of thriving businesses here with one of the most popular investment avenues being the restaurant business. You could be forgiven for thinking this estate has the most restaurants per square kilometre in Kenya.

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 flocking the countless restaurants that dot every corner of Eastleigh.

Wardheer Restaurant and Snacks, Big Mack Two, Chess Café, Al-Amin Restaurant, Gulf Palace Restaurant, the list is just endless.

Even KFC sits at the epicenter of business and has become a magnet for Somali businessmen, expatriates and Kenyans looking for alternative treats.

After being in Kenya for more than two decades, Somalis have perfected the philosophy of pooling resources together for a greater good. Most businesses are owned in joint ventures keeping the Somali community tighter away from home.

Those in the diaspora have kept a tight money channel with many money remittances and forex shops dotting the business hub in competing proportions.

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 economy,” 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 can’t reach.”

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 bus 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.

Every day 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 Somalia, some estimates state that up to $800,000 worth of the mild stimulant is exported daily to Somalia.

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.

Since the collapse of the Somali state in the early 1990s, the Somali people have been forced to navigate a very volatile landscape; within Somalia and beyond, from the East and Horn of Africa sub-region to the Gulf and way beyond, for example, in Europe, North America, and in Asia.

The country produced millions of internally displaced people, refugees and asylums many of them turning themselves into diasporas who also found a home in Kenya.

 As of September 2015, more than half a million refugees were registered in the Dadaab refugee camps in Kenya; most of them Somalis. Also, the Somali people have historically inhabited the North Eastern part of Kenya.

There are about 200,000 Somalis in Nairobi’s Eastleigh estate and almost all of whom are involved in business. According to the Eastleigh Business Community, Somali businesses and trade volume accounts for over Ksh 2.9 billion per year; almost one-third of Nairobi’s overall economy.

The economic transformation of Eastleigh has brought a new level of competition to Nairobi, substantially reducing the cost of goods and services. This, uniquely growing Somali investment in Nairobi has also attracted banks and other service-providers, demonstrating that urban refugees are not necessarily a burden on the State; and that instead, they can also become an economic asset. Remittances from the Somali diaspora also boost Somali businesses.

There are however a number of challenges facing Eastleigh’s business enterprises. For starters life has not been the same in Eastleigh since the Kenya Defense Forces crossed into Somalia in 2011 in their fight against Al-Shabaab; and later on joining the African Union Mission in Somalia. Somali economic enterprises, Kenyans of Somali origin and migrants from Somalia have increasingly been viewed with suspicion and as a source of threat. Al-Shabaab operations in Kenya have further exacerbated this situation.

The business hub also suffers from a lack of basic public services and infrastructure such as clean water, sewage system and safe, usable roads. There is also the question of perception versus misperception. For example, many Kenyans consider Eastleigh to be a centre of illicit trade and corrupt business dealings and practices.