Enter the new professional
The search for fulfilment has given rise to a new generation of workers in Nairobi, writes
My business partner and I are lucky to rent an office at a nice address in Nairobi. You know it’s a nice address when they insist on charging you for parking. We are both young entrepreneurs. We are both fathers. We met five years ago when he offered to redesign my website. He was only starting out then, and has since grown his digital marketing agency of two to almost 20 employees, mostly millennials who come to work in hats. He’s smart, calm and hungry.
There are tons of guys like him, like us, who have put up shingle signs and are trudging through to make something with our hands and minds. You will meet lots of people running all manner of quirky businesses – coders, website designers, software developers, young PR hawks, folk selling ties, shoes and suspenders online, food bloggers, middlemen who roam government corridors schmoozing with procurement officers – all these types who have refused to fit into the narrow description of traditional employment. They want freedom. They want to control what they earn and who they work with. They want to wear hats to work. It’s the new generation hustle and it’s the future in the face of Kenya’s 17% youth unemployment, compared with 6% in Uganda and Tanzania.
And Kenyans are not known to shy away from work. If Nairobians are known for anything it’s their resilience, and these figures have given rise to a culture of DIYs (do it yourselves): if the government won’t create jobs, we will create opportunities ourselves. And so rises the wave of the entrepreneurs and new business card holders who are defining their own narratives. This new generation of worker bees is baffling to our parents. My father, for instance, doesn’t understand exactly what I do for a living, because he can’t imagine that someone can just write for hay.
“What do people pay you to write about?” he asks.
“Lifestyle, mostly. Like food and travel and, you know, people.” “Not politics?” “No.” “Is it serious?” he asks. “Well, sometimes it is.” [Pause] “And you write this on this thing you call the internet?” “Correct.” “You have it in your office?” “Yes. You can also find it everywhere, at home, in a coffee house...”
“Can you send me what you write on the internet?”
“Yes. But you need an internet-enabled phone, which you said you don’t want.”
“So you don’t write for people like me?”
“Only if they have internet-enabled phones.” [Pause] “Let me check on the cows.” Can you blame him, after coming from a generation that stuck to a government job their whole lives; same office, same desk, same street? The property industry has paid heed to this new professional culture, offering creative spaces in which these minds thrive. They have come up with affordable “alternative” office spaces like iHub for the tech powerhouse, Nairobi Garage for the young and fast-growing businesses that don’t have the time and resources to deal with printers and photocopying logistics, and then Alchemy, the creative work space for creators and thinkers. There are also bigger boys, like ESBC, playing in this space, providing solutions for blue-collar professionals who are going it alone.
The new buzz word is “start-up”, and it’s an illustration of the progressiveness of thought of a generation. Even those in “traditional jobs” are considering doing something “of their own” or are already running “things on the side”. It’s the hunger of the beast that wants to be fed by new ideas; but central to this is something profound, the search for happiness, fulfilment, pride and independence. Everybody just wants to turn their vocation into their vacation, and those who aren’t doing that yet are searching for their true north. And therein lies the beauty of these times, the search for the northern star.
TALK TO US Are you considering launching your own start-up? What draw cards and risks have you observed?