Attending a work conference in Nairobi is much like attending one in Europe: the same topics thrashed out, the same terminology overused, the same intense mix of excitement and deadlines and trying to be everywhere at once.
Except that in Nairobi you can also feed giraffes the day before – and find out that Daisy doesn’t like kids, that Kelly only likes to be fed from the front, and that Lily is shy. You can overhear other tourists asking the guides: Why are some of them more friendly? And the guides responding, as they do every day: It’s just their personality. You can feel the animals’ enormous, thinking presence and the gentleness of their purple tongues and you can learn new facts, like that a pregnant female can delay birth by up to two months if she senses dangers for a newborn.
In Nairobi you can stumble across an open mic poetry performance that jumps from the darkest dark (childhood sexual abuse) to the irreverent (“My Dad was a real African Dad – his love language was paying school fees”) to the semi-political (“For Halloween, I wanted to dress up as good governance and go around scaring our government”).
You can see what real traffic jams are like too, especially when it rains, and relearn a little patience, a muscle that’s grown weak from living in London. You can see potholes the width of your car, and hundreds upon hundreds of city-dwellers waiting for buses or walking past static traffic in a poorly-lit street. How exhausting their working day must be.
You can find ultra-convenience, hailing Ubers everywhere – but also remember that places won’t open and events get delayed because of a morning downpour, and spend an evening helping to entertain your friend’s five-year-old during a power cut that’s come just at the wrong time: no TV, no light, no hot water for bathtime.
And the conference itself is a little different too. A little more ceremonious: Please now stand and sing the national anthem. Different cultural references: Please share umbrellas in the spirit of Ubuntu. Local journalists have been told to get to the press briefing half an hour before us; the PR consultant tells me they used to send a minibus to collect them, to make sure they’d make it. And an opening session that includes a brief speech by the venue’s head of security, who tells us not to worry, which makes me worry: “We’re well protected, there are armed guards at the entrances. This is a safe haven.” (It was.)
And the social entrepreneurs? In the UK, organisations are worried about not supporting enough people who have ‘lived experience’—a bit of a clunky term – of the issue they’re trying to solve. In other words, fewer middle-class graduates who can afford to dabble in a new idea, and more people of whatever background who deeply understand homelessness or disability or whatever else.
In Africa you’ll come across these entrepreneurs more easily. Like Queen Mtega, a 20-year-old Tanzanian whose frustrations with a broken fridge at home and her mum’s reluctance to trust the local repairmen led her to set up an online platform connecting repair(wo)men and customers. Or like Joseph Nkandu, whose parents grew coffee – Uganda’s main cash crop – yet were sometimes unable to afford his school fees. That led him to set up a farmers’ association to ensure coffee producers get paid fairly; it now has 1.5 million members. Or like Ngu Morcho, who witnessed Cameroon’s poor healthcare infrastructure failing his family members; he now runs a medical tech company that aims to increase access to care.
The narrative’s not so different to the founder stories you hear everywhere, I guess – just with their own African ingredients.