Today I’m flying back to England to see friends and family for Christmas.
This post summarises the time spent travelling between Rwanda, Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania as I worked out the various opportunities that existed in the region
The trip began in Rwanda, a beautiful place known as the country of a thousand hills.
My time was mainly spent at “Crystal” a house of expats including my good friend Olly. The fact he could pick me up from the airport was one of the deciding factors in where to start.
In the capital of Kigali I spent my time figuring out some sort of structure in my days and started meeting with local businesses to get a sense of how they operated, where opportunities might exist, and what the office space situation was like.
Out of this I decided to start a podcast.
Asking a busy person to “meet for coffee” when they have many other things happening is a bit of an uneven exchange. Offering to interview them for a podcast listened around the world on the other hand changed the dynamic, and suddenly meant I could get to chat to businesses about what they got up to. There was some upfront cost in choosing a logo and buying a microphone, but beyond that it was all quite straightforward.
Weekend trips were great. The first was spent finding a new profile picture climbing a volcano in DR Congo, and a couple of weeks later cycling along Lake Kivu. There was also a boat party which lasted longer than expected owing to, we suspect, a drunken captain being unsure of the direction of the mainland.
Downtime at the house was spent reading books from my friend Greg, going for a swim, and realising that I probably have a phobia of chickens.
The country itself was clearly in a conscious state of development. The President Paul Kagame runs a tight ship and has instigated many policies with a view of getting the private sector to boost economic growth. These vary from the direct (open a business in less than a day) to more indirect, such as having good roads. The latter were being built by the Chinese.
My other main memory is overhearing the collected conversations of Will (housemate) calmly negotiating with the Rwandan government about ensuring they could bring in a shipment of drones. A few months later, Zipline officially launched.
I left Rwanda was assertions from the close expat community that “we’ll see you again in a week” and headed onto Uganda.
Favourite word: umushitsi (earthquake)
Favourite beer: Primus
Favourite podcast episode: Toothpicks
Favourite book read: Talk To Strangers
Song I associate with: Lord Echo, Thinking of You
How I describe Rwandans: kind but reserved
How others describe Rwanda: “It’s too quiet – everything closes at 10pm”
How Rwandans describe others: “You can’t trust a Ugandan”. “Kenya is far too dangerous to do anything”
Arriving in Kampala was like someone had turned on the volume in Africa for me.
There was more hustle, more bustle, and I also realised I’d missed things such as street food, easily striking up conversations with locals and staying out til the early hours.
I was staying in a house that I found on a Facebook page. The landlord was a music producer meaning the friends who would come around and hang out were pretty high on the cool quotient. A lot of them also seemed to have German girlfriends.
The first weekend was spent at a music festival at the source of the Nile. Nyege Nyege is Uganda’s first where people camp, and the crowds were suitably impressed by the offering.
I got to know Kampala by travelling around meeting/ interviewing businesses I’d been introduced to/ made contact with. On top of interviewing a few, I decided to get some experience by doing a couple of projects, one around interviewing small businesses for Ubuntu Capital, and another mapping out data for motorbike leasing company Tugende. On the whole, I found Ugandans to be an entrepreneurial lot.
In the middle there was a bonus appearance from some friends from university. Rich, Ben, David and I had a textbook Kampala night out followed by a tour of the city.
My one main “nature” trip was going to Jinja, a city a couple of hours out of Kampala to kayak on the River Nile. The day was spent on/in the water learning the basic maneuvres and then progressing through rapids. There was also an earthquake a few hundred miles away which (I stand by) is the reason I fell in at that precise moment.
A lot of the other spare time was spent engaging in cultural activities such as an arts festival, and going for a beer with the various people I’d met on my trip. There was a particularly late one ending at 7am with some guys I did a podcast with, and in general I’m still getting my head around how the standard dance moves in the clubs aren’t viewed as an illegal activity.
My time in Uganda finished with attending a wedding which was a calmer, and more family-friendly, representation of Ugandan culture.
Favourite word: kwanji (yes please) often used when answering the phone
Favourite beer: Nile Special
Favourite podcast episode: Marketing
Favourite book read: Poor Economics
Song I associate with: Papa Wembe, Yolele
How I describe Ugandans: fun and welcoming
How others describe Uganda: “I don’t know how you can get any work done there”
How Ugandans describe others: “All Kenyans think about is business”. “Rwandans have to come here to have fun”
Kenya (Part 1)
Arriving in Kenya I was primed for danger. I’d heard stories of “Nai-robbery” and people saying you’d have to take a taxi everywhere to get around town. Thankfully though, this was quickly dispelled, and it felt no more dangerous than Kampala (where the major behaviour change is to not walk alone at night).
As with the other places, the first thing to do was get a SIM card. I was told that one from Safaricom is what I should get so that I could use the M-Pesa system of mobile money. This became more and more prominent as I spent longer in the country, devoting a blog post to how and why it works.
Unlike the other two countries, my time in Kenya was split in various places. I was staying between the spare room and sofa at my friend Gilbert’s for three weeks, and then would head to the coast for a week to see what’s happening there. I ended up making friends with a guy named Jasper (coincidentally knowing his cousin) and ended up staying at his family home for a few nights, trying to not get too distracted by the 9 week old puppy who had recently moved in.
Weekends were spent getting to know Nairobi and heading out for a bit of nature. I was introduced to a group of people going to climb a volcano up near a lake to the north of the city and spent the weekend trekking around a crater and being woken up by hippos.
On the business side of things I got a glimpse of the “start up culture”, meeting many with trendy offices talking about Silicon Valley. That said, there still seemed to be plenty of work to be done around agriculture, with the “bottom of the pyramid” farmers being on par with the other places I’d been to. This is despite some parts of Nairobi feeling as advanced as an European city I’d been to: taking an Uber to pay through the nose for fancy coffee.
With Kenya also having a commercial district away from the capital I thought it’d be good to spend some time checking it out at the coast. This coincided with when Gilbert (and his friend David) were going too, and so we decided to head there together. Unlike anywhere else I’d been to so far, there was the option of travelling by train, and so we naturally bought ourselves tickets.
The Lunatic Express was an experience (you can read more here) and once alighted we were off down to Diani
In Diani (a town an hour to the south) we relaxed. Time was passed swimming in the turquoise ocean, playing cards over a beer, and finding a fisherman to help us catch our dinner.
I finished in Mombasa staying with Hugh and Monica, friends of my Aunt (who used to live there) and met with some shippers to hear about their business. With a day left on my 3 month visa I then went south, to Tanzania.
Favourite word: pole pole (“po-lay po-lay”) Slowly slowly
Favourite beer: White Cap
Favourite podcast episode: Ambulances
Favourite book read: Salmon Fishing in the Yemen
Song I associate with: Fatoumata Diawara, Sowa
How I describe Kenyans: one step ahead
How others describe Kenya: “They always have an ulterior motive”
How Kenyans describe others: “Tanzanians spend too much time sleeping under palm trees“. “Uganda has tasty pineapples”
I lost my phone on the way across the border. Troy, who sat next to me, offered condolences and gave me his number in case I ever needed anything. In the end it had fallen into a hidden part of my rucksack, but I called him anyway and, being in the import/ export business, went in for a chat about where he sees opportunity in the market (the short answer is “cashew nuts”).
My time in Tanzania was split between Dar es Salaam, Zanzibar and Arusha.
I spent a week in Dar chatting to companies and generally found people to be lukewarm about doing business here. There had been stories of surprise tax rates, difficulties in communication and generally a feeling that things take time. That said, the country has a lot of the fundamentals to be a booming place, and so is certainly one for the watch list.
In Zanzibar I decided to undertake “The Big Think”. I spent my time turning over ideas I’d accumulated over the past 14 weeks and began investigating the logistics of moving to each of the countries. I essentially decided that Kenya was the place to go, and that I wanted to solve problems within either the agriculture or financing sectors.
Away from this philosophical undertaking I spent a lot of time being climbed on.
I was staying with a lovely family (through Airbnb) comprised of an Italian mother and three children. When in the house I was often tasked with entertaining Nuru (aged 4) and Omar (aged 1.5) through a combination drawing lessons, iPhone games, and being swung around in circles.
Back on the mainland I went to Arusha, a city in the north, receiving intermittent updates of Trump closing in on victory as the bus drove up country.
In a tenuous link of brother-of-a-friend-of-a-friend I went to “Chai Bora” where Toby invited me to stay. It was a very relaxing week spent editing podcasts, going for drinks at the polo club and generally enjoying being on the grounds of the house with the multitude of interesting visitors passing through.
From here I went back on up to Nairobi for the final leg of the trip.
Favourite word: keepleft-y (roundabout)
Favourite beer: Kilimanjaro
Favourite podcast episode: Recycling
Favourite book read: How Asia Works
Song I associate with: Laissez Moi en Paix, Einaudi/ Sissoko
How I describe Tanzanians: looking out for each other
How others describe Tanzania: “they take their time with everything”
How Tanzanians describe others: “Kenya is too advanced already”. “Rwanda has great tea, but it’s so small”
Kenya (Part 2)
After having spent 2 months mostly on the move, I was keen to stay in one place for the remainder of my time. Speaking to some of the people I knew from first time round, my friend Caitlin put me in touch with Lilian who said I could stay in her spare room.
At the beginning I spent time figuring out what the different options are for making a living here in the new year, and therefore what visa I’d need to get.
With that (sort of) understood, I then went into options of what businesses I could look to work with, spending time writing a proposal for a mango drying business and meeting various people doing financing.
Free time was spent going off to see some camels (in the process also zebra, buffalo and warthog), cooking risotto at a family gathering I was invited to, and playing squash.
Otherwise, weekends looked very similar to what they do in England: meeting friends for a beer, watching live sport, and catching up on life admin tasks (such as writing this blog).
The final week was spent teeing up things to do get started on in the new year. My feeling is that after getting settled for a while various pieces will begin slotting into place.
This “Try Before You Buy” Tour lasted 19 weeks to the day.
The other long term trip I’ve done (to Latin America) lasted 16 weeks and by the end I was ready to go home. Whilst I saw a lot of beautiful things on the continent, the perpetual nature of moving from place to place became tiring and lost its edge by the end. I was also eager to get back to England and get cracking with “starting my career”.
This time however, I’ve felt engaged the whole time: visualising myself staying in each place by looking for opportunities/ doing the podcast has brought a sense of purpose in each of the places I’ve gone to.
There’s now the task of figuring out in more detail what happens next. After stopping off in England for a bit I’ll be spending Christmas in Canada and (assuming I survive the temperature drop) will be looking to fly back out to Nairobi in late January.
I’m pretty sure I’ll keep up the blog/ weekly newsletter with things of interest, you can sign up here:
Otherwise, thank you for following this journey so far!