Keyboard Surfer – Remote Working is a lifeline for Kenya’s Middle East and Africa beach resorts
THEN BEACH BEDS under palm trees on Kenya’s Diani Beach, the usual crowd of swimsuit tourists dozing in the sun, has been replaced by a harder-working crowd of laptop bashers. The murmur of business language can be heard over the rushing ocean. Over the gurgling call of the black and white Colobus monkeys, the tortured executive shouted: “I will return with COB.”
Listen to this story
Your browser doesn’t support this
Enjoy more audio and podcasts on iOS or Android.
When covid-19 struck, it dealt a severe blow to the Kenyan tourism industry, which generates around 9% of GDP. With airports closed and many travelers in the rich world locked in their homes, the number of foreign tourists visiting Kenya dropped by nearly three-quarters. Najib Balala, Kenya’s tourism minister, warned that the industry was on the verge of collapse.
Still, a lifeline has been thrown from an unexpected source: urban Kenyans told to work from home but instead work from a beach house. Florin Iki, artist and teacher, switched from personal Italian and Spanish classes to internet classes – from Lamu, an island on the north coast. “Nairobi is a very chaotic city,” she says. “I could spend three hours in a matatu [minibus taxi] try to get to work on time. “
The new work patterns change a lot of things. Aurelija Juchneviciute, who owns Heavenly Garden, a rental villa in Diani Beach, says 90% of bookings were for short-term stays before the pandemic. Now 90% are long term. The clientele has also changed. Before that, Kenyans made up only a fifth of the guests. Now they’re about halfway through. When the first Covid-19 ban was lifted, “a lot of people just fled Nairobi … to breathe,” she says. “Then they find out that there is a good internet.”
Another change was an increase in the number of visitors from other East African countries. These include Ugandans who voted in violent presidential elections at home, as well as Ethiopians who are drawn to Kenya’s high-speed internet.
Local entrepreneurs who used to make a living selling to large hotels or visiting visitors on weekends are now trying to provide the region’s new residents with fish, vegetables and even furniture. Local services are also booming. Michael Wendo, a Diani-based yoga teacher, says he now teaches regulars rather than casual tourists. Telkom Kenya, a telephone company, said Internet subscriptions in the city have increased 50% since the ban was lifted. Not everyone is a winner. The large hotels in the region, with their high overhead costs, have problems competing with cheaper cottages and villas.
Many of these trends could be reversed after the pandemic. But some can create more lasting cultural changes. For many years, along with the business cycles, Kenyans shuttled between living in expensive cities where there are jobs and moving to their ancestral villages where the costs are lower. Now you have a third option. One that offers kitesurfing but not spending too much time with mom and dad. ■
This article appeared in the Middle East and Africa section of the print version under the heading “Keyboard Surfer”.