Today I’m flying back to the UK for a month to catch up with friends, family and some clients I’ve been working with.
The date on the plane ticket is a year to the day from when I took a flight in the opposite direction and touched down in East Africa for the first time and so it therefore feels like an apt time to reflect on the last 12 months, and take stock of what’s been going on.
Overview of the year
As context, around 15 months ago I decided I wanted to move to Africa.
There were a few reasons (explained here) though it essentially boiled down to:
- There will probably be good business opportunities
- Why not
This led to the flight out to Rwanda at the end of July 2016 and what ended up being a “Try Before You Buy” tour of the region.
I’d been to East Africa once before for a family holiday to Kenya aged ten, but other than that had very little understanding of what was happening on-the-ground. Because of that, I didn’t want to commit myself to a particular role in a certain country before at least getting a sense of what things were like.
After spending ~5 months between the four countries I headed home for Christmas, and then moved out to the country that seemed best.
The year has roughly looked like this:
July: settle in, climb a live volcano in DR Congo
December: decide on Kenya and spend a few weeks lining up what to do
Christmas/ New Year: head home
January – March: working full-time in Nairobi
April – July: freelancing in Nairobi
A major current throughout the initial part of the trip was conducting interviews with business leaders through the medium of podcast.
During the initial phase of the trip I was intent on learning as much as possible about the business environment in each of the countries, and so sought to speak with those already running companies there. Out of this, I hoped I would get on-the-ground insights, a sense of how difficult/ easy it is, and also see where there might be opportunity.
There was, however, an issue: entrepreneurs were too busy running their companies to “just meet up for a chat”.
As a way to even the exchange, it seemed that publicity would be something they would want and, with a bit of effort, that I could offer. Thankfully responses to “would you like to feature on a podcast listened to people around the world?” received many more positive responses, and after buying a microphone/ having a logo made I was able to go and sit down and chat with a multitude of entrepreneurs.
By the end of Season One, the show received thousands of listens each month and was incredibly enjoyable to do: I’ll look to pick up Season Two when time/ resource permits.
Making a living
Moving from a state of employment to one of no fixed income naturally brings an extra layer of uncertainty in any cross-continental shift.
I’d used retained savings from my previous three years of employment (topped up with some remote work through sites like Upwork) to fund the “Try Before You Buy” stage, figuring that it was much more important to have the uninhibited time to explore and consider the move, rather than put pressure on breaking even each month.
If we’re talking specifics, my outgoings averaged $800/ month and so I had a burn rate of 6 months.
This meant that come December when I decided that Kenya was the place to base myself from, I needed to find an income.
The Swahili (Kenyan national language) word for empowerment is “wezesha” and for money its “pesa”. Combine the two and you have Pezesha, a peer-to-peer platform that funds small enterprises with micro loans, funded by other Kenyans.
Through a connection of the podcast, I met with an investor who had just funded Pezesha, and knew that the founder was looking for someone to help out and get things going as the start up disbursed its first loans.
After meeting with Hilda, we agreed to work on a project whereby I would come in and work on building the business, including analysing the reams of data necessary to make a business like this tick.
Sam Floy Inc.
With the basics set up at Pezesha, it became clear that a start up like this should invest its limited resource into a data scientist, rather than someone like me: a business person who can “do data”.
We switched the arrangement to a day a week where I could keep tabs on the analytics/ generally be a sounding board, which then opened up my time to explore the innumerate business opportunities I’d seen, but not had the ability to probe.
Through word of mouth and playing squash, I won a couple of other clients in Kenya (where I do similar “business intelligence” work) as well as developing relationships with UK clients for work I can do over Skype and a good internet connection.
What do you do all day?
The result of this new way of working is that I have a similar (if slightly lower) level of income to what I had previously, however I have tons more time.
This has been a bit disconcerting.
Whilst at no point in my career have I ever been too busy to cancel dinner plans, the previous few months have had more bouts of time where I don’t need to do anything than I’ve been previously used to.
I resolved this by taking long lunches with business people.
Telling myself that I was “building relationships” appeased the must-be-productive side of my personality, and I got to know some local entrepreneurs on a much better level.
Beyond that, I’ve probably had a 150% increase in the amount I’ve read, written and listened to podcasts compared to life back in London.
What are you doing this week?
Another consequence is having largely unplanned weeks.
Most times I’ll have a shortlist of things I’ll be doing to progress the various projects I’m working on, but I can normally do this as and when it makes sense to, rather than at a strict deadline. If a client says “can you do X tomorrow afternoon?”, I can usually juggle things around to accommodate.
Whilst it’s still strange to look at a blank calendar most weeks, the flexibility has permitted saying Yes to a few rogue trips/ projects which, had the diary been blocked up, wouldn’t have been possible.
Becoming accustomed to things
The biggest message on lifestyle is that it’s not been a step change difference
I’ve spent most of my time in capital cities, which naturally attract the concentration of a country’s high earners, and as such products and services for them to spend their money on.
These are typically in line with what you can find in most other international cities, namely that you can still hail an Uber and be overcharged for a fancy cappuccino in a trendy coffee shop.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying this is how the majority of the countries’ populations live, but merely that in looking for a transition to a “developing country”, it can actually be fairly comfortable and not “all mud huts” that some people may envisage.
Nevertheless, there are certain aspects which I’m sure I did a double take first time they happened, but which now seem fairly normal:
- Every Uber driver calls you up to see where you are
- Mangoes and avocados cost 20p tops
- Most people earnestly believe in God
- It’s completely legit to eat roast potatoes with your hands
- A lot of people have a better smartphone than me
- You have to pay to see nature
- Most people will openly litter, not seeing it as an issue
- Buses have sub-woofers
- You can always pay with mobile money
The last point is super interesting actually. Kenya is the world leader in paying with mobile money and my local friends find it weird that a) other countries don’t do it and b) how on earth could you function without it. You can read this article on how and why mobile money works in Kenya to learn more.
What’s happening now?
After the trip back to the UK, I’ll look pick a few things to work on back in East Africa.
My “Projects” folder in Google Drive has become a bit overrun, requiring me to create sub-folders: a subtle sign that I should focus more.
That said, I’m still somewhat in the mindset of maximising learning (rather than maximising income) and so once I have a base amount covered each month, I can use additional time to develop side projects, such as teaching Excel and building an East African food brand.
If it’s of interest, I have kept up a weekly newsletter about what I’m up to (along with one or two interesting links from the internet that week) which you are more than welcome to sign up to, to hear the latest.
As we wrap up this post on the first year in East Africa the main reflection is how it’s been less scary than one might imagine.
In this and, I guess, all parts of the world you are able to find like-minded people to socialise with, and organisations willing to pay you if you do something valuable for them.
With those basic needs met, it’s then just a case of integrating with the local culture, and staying in touch with people back home which is super straightforward with Whatsapp.
From an East Africa perspective there still feels like a ton of opportunity as the region develops, meaning having on-the-ground experience will hopefully only increase in value with time.
We’ll have to see how things are looking another year from now…
Thanks for reading.
If you have any questions about making a move to East Africa/ another continent, please feel to get in touch!
I was lucky enough to have people to talk to about what was happening in the region before flying out, and so would love to pay forward the favour if anyone is on the fence.