Eastleigh: Kenya's global Somali hub

Saturday May 06 2017

Street hawkers mill around following protests by shop owners that saw a lockdown of 1st Avenue, the heart of Eastleigh’s business hub and one of Nairobi’s thriving business centres. FILE PHOTO | NMG

For years, rural development dominated developing world economic discourse. Most of Africa’s population resided in the countryside and the agrarian economy was central to most economic activity. So the untapped potential of rural areas was central to most political and developmental narratives.

The socioeconomic role of cities and towns was often taken for granted in comparison — a proclivity that was in part due to the failed expectations that industry and urbanisation would catalyse modernisation during the years following Independence.

Most African cities have gone from being necessary but unremarkable hubs and service centres to generic-looking obstacle courses of snarled traffic, uncollected trash, and pollution. Poor and unplanned settlements dominate large swathes of the cityscape.

In the posh areas, a combination of money and a growing middle class has triggered the architectural version of the standard school uniform: Pleasant multi-story residential boxes with small variations in colour schemes and design planted amidst the glass-coated business towers looming above them.


The growth many African countries have experienced lately only makes things worse. Addis Ababa, for example, was until recently a pleasant and distinctively African city. Now it is deteriorating into an incoherent patchwork; colonial era neighbourhoods are giving way to highrises and the raised monorail bisecting the city’s heart has mutilated Meskal Square beyond recognition. A bloated new African Union headquarters built by the Chinese looms over the more aesthetic building it replaced.


Growth has robbed cities like Addis, Accra and Nairobi of much of their original character. But all the tacky strip malls, mushrooming tenements of cheaply constructed five-story housing blocks, and sleek-looking buildings teeming with tiny shops inside are actually the orifices of a much larger mask. Behind it lie complicated webs of interactions, transactions, and demographic processes reforming the city from the inside. The vertical growth of African cities should not distract from the pulsating movement and vibrant activity on the street.

Urban areas will soon house the majority of the planet’s population, making cities the new foci of interest for a numerous reasons. In Africa they typically generate most of a nation’s economic value, provide diverse and higher paying jobs, and act as magnets for he more educated segment of rural youth.


Nairobi is a case in point; it generates something over 60 per cent of Kenya’s economic value. Although developments in the urban milieu are not likely to usurp the role of the conventional developmental ideology, have long figured larger than life on the farm or the range among a large portion of the continent’s population. For a young Kenyan, to make it to Nairobi and survive was until recently a measure of success.

Nairobi’s Eastleigh area is an example of how urbanisation is generating some of Africa’s more unexpected development pathways. It is in many ways a contradictory accident of a neighbourhood that morphed into a transnational bazaar powered by pastoralist capital. Its uncountable small shops, great eateries and cafes, and surging population are squeezed in to a compact 2,000-acre grid.

Eastleigh has always been one of Nairobi’s more distinctive spaces, a multi-ethnic and interactive free zone abutting the city’s “historical” estates like Majengo, Kamukunji, Mathare Valley, and California. Its cosmopolitan ambiance provided the template for its 1990s transition into the single most diverse and energetic commercial hub of its kind across the greater Horn of Africa region. The transformation made it the worthy subject of Prof Neil Carrier’s new book, Little Mogadishu: Eastleigh, Nairobi’s Global Somali Hub.

Prof Carrier’s documentation of its rapid transformation over the past two decades should help reset our thinking about the role of African cities and how their transformative mix of communities, cultures, commerce, and communal dynamics are reconfiguring urban landscapes.

It is a fascinating account, and an important contribution to the literature on the more unanticipated impacts of ethnicity, conflict, and globalisation. Eastleigh’s spreading fame makes the publication of Carrier’s book of interest to a wider audience beyond the usual academic and Africana readership.

Somali influence
The book provides a straightforward ethnographic account of Eastleigh’s evolution. Designated as an Asian settlement area, the estate began to deviate from the colonial urban planning template at an early stage.

The plan began to mutate during the early stages of the estate’s development, in part due to the presence of northern Somali settlers who ended up in Eastleigh despite the usual spatial-racial parcelling the British Empire imposed upon its subjects across the globe. The presence of Somali herders on the fringe was tolerated because there was nowhere else to park them.

The Somali influence grew incrementally, accelerating during the post-Independence decades before becoming the “Little Mogadishu” featuring in the book’s title. But Eastleigh is much more than a case of Somali ethnic capital blossoming due to the unlikely confluence of civil war and economic liberalisation.

Over the years, I have never heard anyone refer to what was always Nairobi’s most interesting and accessible neighbourhood as “Little Mogadishu,” although the term pops up occasionally in the print media.

The author states as much in chapter three, and the rest of the book proceeds to detail why the emergence of Eastleigh is actually a uniquely Kenyan phenomena. This does not alter the fact that the influx of Somali refugees beginning in 1993 and the subsequent emergence of the Garissa Lodge mall commercial model triggered the transitional phenomena analysed in the book.

Somali refugees began converting their rooms in what was a centrally located lodging into small shops during the day. The lodging morphed into a “mall” hosting shops selling clothes, cosmetics, shoes, and cheap electronics; an inner courtyard featured Somali women draped in gold for sale, and money-changers offering the best rates in town clustered around the narrow entrances.

Business boomed. Success led to rapid replication, first in Eastleigh, and before long in other Kenya towns and beyond. There is even a Garissa Lodge style mall in Minneapolis, in the US. All of this proceeded in area of crumbling infrastructure, terrible roads, and decades of state neglect in general.

Prof Carrier unpacks how the local retail business model with its high entrance costs in the form of “goodwill” and “key” payments thrived and generated a complex commercial ecology spanning the hawkers clogging the sidewalks outside the malls to a booming hospitality and services sector and formal enterprises including Islamic banks and money transfer companies linking diaspora capital to investment opportunities in Kenya and other areas of the Horn.

The dissection of the Eastleigh economy, explication of the social life of several of its core commodities, and the social dynamics that makes it work comprise the heart of the book.

Carrier untangles the different threads contributing to Eastleigh’s economic exceptionalism, recording how they came together out of a conjunction of colonialism, migration, civil war, globalisation, and transnational ethnic networks. He records the transition from what began as a patchwork of micro-enterprises and informal sector activities to a home for formal sector enterprises that became the third largest tax revenue generating area of Nairobi.

Eastleigh has spawned employment and opportunities for other Kenyans in addition to acting as a magnet for the $780 million that Somalis abroad remit to Kenya. But contrary to the evidence, local critics have consistently challenged the legitimacy of Eastleigh’s economic prosperity, speculating on the community’s links with piracy and terrorism.

This partially explains why the author repeatedly uses the terms “ambiguity” and “ambivalence” during the introductory passages, anticipating the darker aspect of the larger narrative in the form of imputed links to Al Shabaab and the series of large and small terrorist attacks rocking Nairobi over the past decade.

Victims of the Jihadi movement

Prof Carrier sets the record straight on how Somalis and other members of the Muslim community became the primary victims of state human-rights abuses and reprisals based on the obsolete policy of collective responsibility.

Eastleigh became the scapegoat for series of terrorist attacks even though the Muslim Youth Centre in nearby Majengo was the main Al Shabaab recruiting node under the influence of Ahmed Ali Iman, a charismatic community activist of Meru-Kamba background. The most Islamist-oriented mosques in Eastleigh have been preaching against Al Shabaab for years.

The author notes this and the fact that many Eastleigh residents are victims of the Jihadi movement. The author’s analysis sheds light on why expatriate Somali business communities are quite cognisant of the sensitivities defining their relationship with their hosts, be it in Kenya, the UK, or Ethiopia, and are actually a critical asset in the fight against Islamist extremism.

The current Member of Parliament of Kamukunji (which Eastleigh is part of), Yusuf Hassan Abdi, a terrorist attack survivor himself, is a highly articulate advocate of this position.

The actions of Kenya’s security apparatus followed the opposite logic: The business of exploiting the contentious status of ethnic Somalis in Kenya has always been a lucrative proposition for some Kenyan civil servants.

The gendarmerie unleashed by Operation Usalama Watch shook down Eastleigh’s Somali population in the same manner security personnel plundered the Westgate Mall after the September 2013 terror attack that triggered the operation. There was nothing ambiguous about the abuses accompanying the operation, including the numbers of Kenya citizens incarcerated along with the undocumented refugees in Kasarani stadium.

The operation’s contribution to the forces of radicalisation more than cancelled out any imputed security benefits; Al Shabaab has continued to launch bloody attacks on civilian and military targets in Kenya and areas of Somalia controlled by the Kenya Defence Forces. It also provided an objective lesson about capital flight.

Economic implication

The crackdown undercut this politically progressive aspect of the transformational dynamics at work, while the flight of human and fiscal resources following the pogrom — Kampala became a primary destination — demonstrated the mobility of diaspora capital.

Prior to these developments, the shared benefits accompanying the rise of the transnational Eastleigh economy appeared to mark a new era in Kenya-Somali relations. Despite the disruption, the generally positive directionality of these affairs should prevail.

By documenting the impact of the ineffective securitisation policy, the impunity of state-based actors, and how they cloak themselves in nationalist rhetoric, the publication of Carrier’s study is also timely insofar as it connects developments in Eastleigh to the wider narrative of immigration and refugees associated with Brexit and the election of Donald Trump.

The book’s more important contribution, however, is how it alters the way we think about the processes catalysed by urbanisation, migration, and their unanticipated consequences.

Surging demographic growth has produced a new generation of Africans from diverse backgrounds who are no longer interested in staying down on the farm or on the range. The continent’s cities and neighbourhoods like Eastleigh are the crucible where they will forge their destiny.