Emerging Market Profiles: Living and Working in Kenya

By Pat DeDonato Sep 11, 2014

In recent years, many multinational organizations have established regional headquarters in Kenya, and particularly in its capital city Nairobi. The East African country has seen improved economic activity in recent years. This activity has been driven by a growing commercial relationship with India and China, the growth of the technology sector, and increased investment in the agricultural, tourism and manufacturing industries. The 2012 discovery of oil along Kenya’s coastline also adds to the country’s economic prospects.

Kenya has a predominantly English-speaking population and a political landscape that for Africa is relatively stable. This environment, combined with diverse housing options, means Kenya is less challenging for expatriates than many other countries in Africa. Yet it remains a difficult location for some, with security issues and transportation being particular concerns.

Safety and Security

Kenya is currently facing increased security risks, with a number of terrorism activities in recent years. The U.S. State Department ranks Nairobi as a high hardship location. Crime and terrorist-related incidents have increased, so it is important to be extra vigilant and ensure that safety is built into the assignee’s daily practices as well as the company’s policies.

Safety tips include:

  • Heed the travel advice issued by your home government organization/specialist security firm and check regularly for additional updates/advisories. Current advice includes not traveling within 60 kilometers of the Somali border and to other designated coastal areas.
  • Avoid crowded places including certain township areas in Nairobi.
  • Do not use public transportation.
  • Refrain from walking in public areas at night.
  • Review and tighten property security as necessary, ensuring adequate safety provisions have been taken.
  • Ensure your assignees attend a security briefing to allay perceptions and concerns. It is important that assignees are given realistic, but non-alarmist information about Kenya’s potential dangers.
  • Have a well-developed security policy and a local “go to” person for security related matters.
  • Consider hardship premiums. It is recommended that companies utilize their independent data provider or the U.S. State Department for guidance.

Housing in Nairobi

Nairobi is East Africa’s largest city and one of Africa’s most prominent. With Kenya’s largest expatriate population, the city is divided into numerous districts, which range from upmarket and spacious to high-density slums. This highlights the vast economic inequalities faced by the city’s population. Nairobi is a deeply multicultural and cosmopolitan city, and the enduring British colonial legacy is present in many of the city’s buildings, which stand alongside mosques, temples and modern skyscrapers.

Expatriates moving to Kenya will be pleasantly surprised by the range, quality, and size of housing, particularly in Nairobi. There is a wide range of housing types, from standalone homes some distance from the city center, to modern homes in compounds and downtown apartments. With a well-established expatriate community, Nairobi’s rental practices are more in line with western norms than those in many other African cities.

The challenge, however, is that availability at this time is extremely limited due to the influx of foreign investors into Kenya and the increased demand for high-quality, secure housing for their expatriate employees. Due to high demand, once a property is found, assignees should act quickly to secure it.

Rental Payments

Rental payments are typically paid in advance, in Kenyan shillings on a quarterly basis. Security deposits are also required and are usually the equivalent of three months’ rent. It is advisable to get any work done to the property before paying a deposit. Some additional payments such as stamp duty, legal costs and lease administration fees may be applicable.

For assignees in compounds, a service charge may also be included in rental payments.

Break clauses are normally accepted by landlords, but will require a notice period of at least three months and lease terminations require three months’ notice by both the tenant and landlord. Upon termination of the lease, it is standard practice for the tenant to re-paint the interior of a property and re-finish the floors.


Setting up utilities can be a lengthy process. Applying for a phone line for example, may take weeks. It is advisable to rent a home that has an existing phone line, if at all possible. As there are often power outages and water shortages, many homes will have generators and water tanks. Water and electricity bills are not included in rental payments and are expected to be paid for by the tenant. An assignee will have to obtain a personal identification number from the Kenya immigration department before utilities can be set up.

Furnished Temporary Housing

Furnished temporary housing is available, although it is not typically of the same standard as accommodation in cities such as Johannesburg, London and New York. There are few temporary accommodation providers, and it is recommended that assignees book such properties well in advance. Most providers will require advance payment and may arrange shuttles from the airport. Please note that only one serviced apartment provider allows animals.

Organizations should align their security guidelines to the assignee’s choice of housing e.g., a property in a compound would require security rules that are different from those for a city apartment.

As security can be an issue in Nairobi, the following precautions are typically advisable:

  • Properties in gated communities are preferable.
  • Homes should be equipped with reliable, tested alarm systems.

Due to traffic congestion on the roads, assignees moving with children should choose a school first and then begin the home search. This makes it easier to achieve a reasonable commute time. A deposit and first quarter’s rent is required before a lease can be signed, so organizations should ensure an appropriate level of accommodation allowance is made available to the assignee. As there may be extra costs (legal fees, stamp duty) assignees should confirm the exact amount as early in the process as possible, so it can be included in the assignee’s accommodation allowance. Due to traffic, it is not usually possible to see more than three to five properties per visit, so additional time may be needed for the pre-assignment trip. Organizations may want to provide additional support for domestic help, which is common in Nairobi.


The country’s road network is extensive, although in poor condition due to a combination of a lack of maintenance and overuse. The government has commenced a road rehabilitation program which is slowly improving the quality of the roads, but current conditions include such hazards as potholes and poor signage. Although there is a public transport system in Nairobi, it is not well developed and assignees are not advised to use it.

It is possible to lease cars in Nairobi, and assignees can drive with an international driver’s license, although organizations typically provide assignees with a car and designated driver. Should an assignee choose to drive, consider giving them a designated driver for the first two weeks of their assignment, until they are used to their surroundings and road layouts. Due to road conditions, 4x4 vehicles are recommended.

Household Goods Shipping

Shipping household goods by air or sea to Nairobi can be a long and expensive process. In most cases, airline shipping is sent to the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport freight department, and sea shipments are sent to Mombasa and then overland to Nairobi.

Air shipments can take three to four weeks and sea shipments may take up to three months, if not longer, depending on the shipment’s origin. Port congestion in Mombasa occurs frequently when too many vessels arrive at once, making it difficult to unload. This makes the process even slower and can delay delivery of goods for several weeks. Assignees therefore need to ensure they consider travel times and plan around lease start dates. Although given that shipping timescales are relatively unknown, flexibility remains key.

Customs regulations can be complex, and assignees and companies are advised to check with their household goods provider for correct processes. Some general best practices include:

  • The owner must have arrived before the goods can clear customs.
  • Goods can only clear customs once the immigration department has issued the assignee with a personal identification number.
  • Timescales can vary, but it can take 10-14 days for both air and sea shipments to clear.

Due to the potential for shipping delays, relocation schedules should remain flexible, so that they can be adjusted accordingly. To achieve cost effectiveness, when aligning immigration, school search and home-finding timelines, organizations should work from a realistic, “worst case scenario” timeframe. This will reduce the potential cost of cancelations and rescheduling.

Furniture rental is available in Nairobi so if there is a shipment delay, furniture can be hired until the shipment arrives. This cost should be factored into relocation budgets and assignee allowances.


Nairobi has a good selection of private and international pre-school, kindergarten, primary and high schools. Many of these follow British or American curricula. There are also several foreign community schools including French, German, Dutch, Swedish and Japanese. Standard schooling in Kenya consists of eight years of primary school and four years of secondary school. The Kenyan academic year runs from January to December.

It is advisable to enquire about vacancies well in advance, as most of the best private and international schools—those usually desired by expatriates—are heavily subscribed. School admission depends on availability and previous academic records. The admissions usually take place during the summer and can include an entrance exam as well as a personal interview. In quite a few of the international/private schools, the family will need to wait for assessment results before the child is officially accepted; only then will an invoice for school fees be sent. In most cases, there is an additional fee for school assessments. Tuition fees vary depending on the school but can be extremely high. In addition to tuition and assessment costs, there may also be a caution fee, which covers potential damage to school property and is refundable when the child leaves school.


Following recent terrorist attacks in Kenya, the government has heightened security checks for foreign nationals submitting immigration applications. The new checks are anticipated to increase processing times by at least two weeks for all immigration procedures, including applications for work authorization and visitor status.

In June 2013, it was announced that in addition to a dependent pass, expatriate children attending school in Kenya must now hold a student pass.

Once visas are secured, assignees must obtain a personal identification number. There is often a delay in getting this from the immigration department but without it, utilities cannot be set up and household goods cannot be cleared.

The immigration and work permit process can be lengthy and can impact the start of an assignment, so it is important to work closely with your provider to identify and conform to required documentation deadlines and other timeframes.


Kenya’s climate varies from region to region, with a predominantly tropical, humid climate along the east coast and drier, more arid conditions in the north and further inland. There is typically year-long sunshine and high temperatures, which can reach 93°F. The hottest months of the year are February and March, with the coolest months July and August where temperatures can dip to 50°F. Kenya has a long rainy season, from April to June with shorter rainy spells in October and December.

With hot and humid summer months, it can be quite uncomfortable being outside in Kenya in the heat of the day, especially when trying to complete tasks such as finding a property. With this in mind, it is recommended that any visits or permanent moves are scheduled outside the country’s hottest months of the year (February and March).


English and Swahili are Kenya’s two official languages. Both are used in the business environment and social settings. Many indigenous languages, such as Kikuyu, are also spoken. As English is widely spoken in Kenya, especially in Nairobi, language is not a major challenge for expatriates. However, it is recommended that assignees learn a few Swahili words and basic phrases, as locals will appreciate the effort made.

Cultural Issues

Despite its varying problems of occasional political unrest, random terrorist activity, regional drought and poverty, Kenya is a country where the phrase Hakuna Matata, meaning “no problem,” epitomizes the national attitude. Kenyans value hierarchy, tradition and relationships, placing emphasis on a sense of family and honor. The following lists the top tips and best practices for those living and doing business in Kenya:

Communication. Strong eye contact and a firm handshake are important when meeting business contacts. Kenyans tend to avoid using direct statements, opting to use stories or analogies to convey their points. Assignees should use body language and context to determine what is actually being communicated.

Decision making. As an egalitarian society, decision making is typically undertaken by the group, rather than individual. When making decisions, Kenyans try to avoid risk and will examine the options in great detail. This makes the process a lengthy one, but no matter how long it takes, assignees should be patient. After gaining input from the group, final decisions are announced by the most senior person, on a one-to-one basis rather than in a group meeting.

Hospitality. Business entertaining is commonplace and assignees should accept hospitality when it is offered. A small, inexpensive gift for the host is appreciated, but do not take alcohol. If asked to dinner, returning the favor is appreciated.

Negotiating. Whether it is a market stall purchase or major business deal, Kenyans are enthusiastic and skilled negotiators. Bargaining is part of everyday life and will occur at all levels. However, relationships are still deemed more important, so once a negotiation is complete, regardless of the outcome, the relationship is expected to return to normal.

Hierarchy. Hierarchical preference is given first to those with political connections and/or wealth, then to the eldest and finally to the most educated. Kenya is a patriarchal society, with respect given to male leaders, whether at home, at work or in the political sphere.

Personal space. People can stand much closer to one another in public areas. The concept of personal space is not widely shared by locals and this can be disconcerting to assignees used to western practices.

Relationships. Networking is key to building good working relationships in Kenya. For example, when seeing a colleague, always take the time to ask about their family and, if asked, assignees should talk about their own family.

Meetings. Meetings are regularly delayed by up to an hour. Once business meetings begin, they do not finish until the agenda is completed, which means the day’s schedule invariably gets pushed back. With this in mind, it is recommended that meetings are organized in the morning to avoid postponement. When meeting with business associates for the first time, it is important that participants get to know one another. Assignees should not expect to conduct business negotiations at an initial meeting.

Teamwork. Kenyans enjoy a sense of unity, which is embodied in the country’s motto, Harambee, meaning “Let’s pull together.” Relationships, business interactions and projects are influenced by this, with emphasis placed on mutual assistance, cooperation and shared responsibility, rather than individualism and personal achievement.

Timescales. As in many African societies, Kenyans have a relaxed attitude to timescales and deadlines, both in business and their personal life. For example, it is not uncommon for e-mails to be replied to several days after they were sent and returned telephone calls can also take time. This can be frustrating to assignees used to a faster-paced work environment.

Technology. Telephone calls and text messages receive quicker response times than e-mail, as the latter is often viewed as a form of social media in Kenya, much like Facebook or Twitter. This is why response times can be slow. Although this mindset is changing, contact in person is still preferred and it is not uncommon to visit an office to arrange a meeting.

Pat DeDonato is senior vice president of supply chain management at Cartus, a provider of global relocation solutions serving half of the Fortune 50, in more than 165 countries, helping clients with their mobility, outsourcing, consulting, and language and intercultural training needs.

Copyright 2014 © Cartus. All rights reserved.

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