There are some new buildings but many of the old, abandoned ones remain. There are a couple of new roads. They don't seem to have made a dent in the near legendary traffic jams of Kenya's capital. Thanks to some innovative mobile researchers there is a better mutatu map which might help you work your way around the regular jams, like the one on Ngong Road where Grameen's Kenyan office is. Drivers can now look up and send live traffic information on their phones if alternate routes start to slow down.
That is the Nairobi I remember: a city full of people finding creative solutions to problems posed by crumbling infrastructure and disinterested authorities.
In Kenya, a good shorthand for that creativity has long been the mobile phone. This is the land the mobile banking became successful in, where crisis mapping was born, where IBM and Google are pumping in money to build Savannah Valley, the world's next technology capital, which is creating yet more feverish development.
Recently, the TaroWorks team went on a field visit to Mukuru, a slum in the industrial area of Nairobi. We were visiting a potential customer who, while excited about the potential benefits of mobile data management, was wary of furnishing field agents with expensive smartphones or tablets. These have significant resale value, after all, and slum residents, more than anyone, suffer from poor governance. Naturally, there is significant impetus for theft. Mobiles don't come without risks.
In 2001, Paul Theroux described Nairobi derisively as “an improvised city, populated by hangers-on, hustlers and newly arrived bumpkins”. In a book in which he travels overland from Cairo to Cape Town he is at his most damning when writing about Kenya's capital: the dirt, the poverty, the lack of organisation. Never one to pull punches, he firmly blamed the corruption of the politicians and foreigners working on aid, who “did not stay long, so they never discovered the full extent of their failure”. Kenyans, he argues, had been taught to expect lies from domestic politicians and short-term interventions from international aid workers.
I'm not (yet) as curmudgeonly as Paul Theroux, but it's difficult to find fault with some of his criticisms. There have certainly been a steady stream of political problems and disappointments in the years since independence. The current government, elected a couple of weeks after I left the country in 2012, have been beset by accusations of corruption and the ongoing ICC debacle. Speaking to Kenyan friends and colleagues about politics elicits one response: exasperation. They have been let down too often for too long – politicians are certainly not figures of hope.
One of the reasons I decided to apply for my fellowship was the chance to work again in Nairobi, even if that makes me yet another short staying foreigner. Even better, I would be able to work on poverty alleviation projects that focused on private sector development. I had always worked for the sort of NGOs that swam in the same pool as politicians; it has been exciting to step towards the private sector with TaroWorks.
Bottom-lines, inefficiencies, revenues, shareholders – much of it is pretty alien to me. Personally, I relish that. I wanted this position because it would challenge me. Having spent a few weeks with the rest of the team, it's become pretty clear that I am amongst like-minded colleagues. Probably the best aspect of this fellowship is the enormous opportunities I have to learn – from my colleagues, from working in a new sector, and from the very many innovators living and working in Nairobi.
Innovation doesn't come from easy promises, it comes from trying to solve problems. I hope that I will be able to help TaroWorks and Grameen Foundation more generally solve at least a few problems this year. Maybe when I next return to Nairobi, the innovators will be more influential and the traffic a little less irritating.
Rowan Emslie is Grameen Foundation's TaroWorks Marketing, Outreach and Thought Leadership Fellow. He is based in Kenya. Follow him on Twitter @RowanEmslie.