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Eastleigh Estate Nairobi has become Somali business hub


Eastleigh, Nairobi: Many describe it as a 'country within a country' with a robust economy that immensely contributes to the national economy - Photo: HOL


SPECIAL REPORT BY XINHUA CORRESPONDENT Bedah Mengo
Sunday, March 13, 2011

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NAIROBI (Xinhua) -- Once a lackluster residential settlement, Eastleigh has grown to become an unrivalled business hub in Nairobi, Kenya thanks to a huge population of Somali immigrants.

The area, christened "Small Mogadishu" is perhaps Nairobi’s most active commercial center, slowly taking over from the central business district.

Many describe it as a "country within a country" with a robust economy that immensely contributes to the national economy.

Business booming in the area is evident.

Eastleigh is dotted with skyscrapers of which many were constructed in the past five years.

On one of the streets stands Amal Shopping Plaza built eight years ago.

Until recently, the building was the most stylish and developed shopping centers in the area.

But upcoming buildings are taking over the pride of place once occupied by the architectural masterpiece.

The building has ramps, winding staircases and elevators, features associated with buildings in Nairobi’s central business that host corporate heavyweights.

Amal is a melting pot of frenzy trade for the Somalis.

According to a resident, Aziz Mohammed, people travel from all over Kenya and neighboring countries like Uganda, Tanzania, south Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo to Eastleigh to shop at Amal and other centers.

"The prices are very competitive that is why customers travel from far to shop here.

"You will virtually find anything you want at the right price," says Mohammed.

But it is not only fair prices that attract customers, thanks to the connections of the traders, they stock goods from all over the world.

"In the shops, you find trousers from China, watches from the US, Hi-fi systems from Japan and South Korea and so on," he says.

Interestingly, Mohammed says the merchandise at Amal is sold at different prices depending on the location of the shop in the building.

"On the ground floor, which mostly consists of textile shops, goods are sold in bulk, although they also sell for retailers," he says.

The shops in the upper floors sell goods mostly to retailers.

In these shops, you will find goods like T-Shirts, shoes, dresses, suits and electronic equipment that include TVs, music systems and mobile phones.

Business here however is not only based on products, there are also service providers who target the foreign population.

Such businesses include money transfer and travel agencies.

The Western Union, a worldwide money transfer service, is among the most conspicuous.

Its black and yellow colors can be identified from far.

There are also restaurants in the building, which mainly sell Ethiopian, Somali and Afghan cuisines.

The Amal business model is replicated in several other shopping malls in the area for instance Olympic shopping center.

However, the construction of shopping malls and other modern buildings in the area, mainly shaped by the dominant presence of Somali refugees, is slowly edging out natives.

Many Kenyans who were born and brought up in Eastleigh now feel like they are foreigners in an estate they once knew heart by heart.

"We have been reduced to spectators in Eastleigh.

"We do not contribute anything in the economy of this area.

"Everything has been taken over by the Somalis," says Japheth Kinyua, a Kenyan resident.

Kinyua says the estate started to change rapidly in the 1990s when war broke out in the neighboring Somali after the then president Siad Barre was toppled.

"As the war intensified, hundreds of Somali refugees fled into Kenya and started staying camps in northern Kenya," recounts the 42-year-old.

Soon however, the Somalis found their way to Nairobi where they settled in Eastleigh.

"They found the area welcoming because Kenyan Somalis, although then not dominant lived in the area," Kinyua said.

"The influx of the refugees, he notes, slowly turned Eastleigh into "Mogadishu."

And when the Kenyan government allowed Somali parliamentarians to run their affairs from the area, its landscape changed.

"The Somalis started investing in the area.

"We started seeing buildings that have changed Eastleigh forever," he says.

While he says the development has helped improve the status of the area, it should have been controlled.

"The government stumbled by allowing foreigners to construct buildings unrestricted.

"Right now, the government has no control over Eastleigh.

"They do not know whether the business that takes place there is legal or illegal," he says.

The area, he adds, has become a haven of immigrants, majority of them have settled illegally.

Previously, the Kenyan government has admitted that Somali piracy money finds its way in Eastleigh and the economy of the country.

The money, according to the government, has helped push up prices of property in the real estate industry.

A recent survey by Hass Consult, a real estate firm in Nairobi, indicated that prices of properties rose drastically in 2010.

There are houses in Nairobi that sell for 1.25 million U.S. dollars.

The value of land has also increased spontaneously locking out natives.

However, Somalis in Eastleigh dismiss claims that they have links with pirates and al Shabaab, a terror group.

"Those who say we are connected to al Shabaab and pirates do not know what they are talking about.

"Eastleigh started growing even before al Shabaab and pirates.

"We are genuine and hardworking business persons who have been able to cut a niche for ourselves in business," they said.

In a bid to stem possible chances of piracy money finding its way in Kenya, the country’s central bank directed financial institutions to monitor the transactions of Kenya-based Somalis suspected to have connections with pirates.