Every Wednesday we have our Man Around Nairobi segment where we feature men who work, live and play in Nairobi. Our Man around Nairobi this week is Sakaja Johnson. Sakaja Johnson is the Chairman of The National Alliance (TNA). At only 27, he became the youngest Chairman of a ruling party in the world. He was thereafter nominated to the National Assembly where he became the Chairman of the Joint Parliamentary Committee on National Cohesion and Equal Opportunities. Sakaja Johnson also runs a consultancy firm.
1. Did you grow up in Nairobi?
I was born and bred in Nairobi, in the then government quarters in Parklands. I went to Aga Khan Primary school up to 1998 and later joined Lenana School where I developed my leadership qualities. I then joined the University of Nairobi where I graduated with a degree in Actuarial Science.
I grew up in Ngara and I had a great childhood. We lived in a mixed community, with Africans and Asians living together. Most of the friends I made then are still my friends. Ngara was fun. We would go to our neighbour’s houses to play. We used to ride bikes when they were available and play games like roundas and kalongo. Most of my friends I knew by their first names only. Their tribes didn’t matter. I found out about their tribes much later. If there was a loss we would come together and even go to their shags. They were also there for us when my mum died. Nairobi was a safe place to be when I was growing up. Many Nairobians have similar experiences of growing up.
This is the Nairobi I miss. You could go borrow salt from your neighbour. Nowadays people don’t even know their neighbours and neighbours are also competing. When we were growing up we would go to school together. Whoever had a car would take the children to school. We would walk to town and get into trouble if any of our neighbours found us there because they would tell our parents. We of course had gone to town without permission. We would also go to the Sarit Centre to watch people and look at stuff there. We would hang out at the museum. I loved the snake park and there was a snake that was my favourite – The Hahe Cobra from Egypt. The Mzungus who would come to the museum would give us some money.
We moved to Imara Daima when I was 13 after my mum died. We lived in a government house and after she died we had to move (my mum worked for the government). Our neighbours really helped us when she died and we were able to stay a couple of years in that house after she passed away. I became pals with the makangas in Imara Daima. In Class 8 I used to help out, and make sure the matatus moved in an orderly manner.
I was a very shy kid back then. I was the last born and the only boy. I would sit and observe people. I became more social when I was in high school at Lenana. That is when I also started on my journey to become a leader. I used to play rugby. In first form rugby was mandatory for everyone.
2. What do you love about Nairobi?
Nairobi has a vibe – a spirit. There is something about Nairobi that is special. Nairobians are resilient. They are entrepreneurs. Even the guys in government have a side hustle.
Nairobi is Africa’s New York. Nairobi has a lot to offer, from the matatu culture, the art scene etc.
Nairobi has the potential to be the land of opportunities if you have a good head on your shoulders. If you have great ideas you can make it. Nairobi has lost it now. People used to talk about Nairobi with awe. In Dubai they used to refer to it as half London (this is before Dubai was developed). Nairobi can be competitive again. We need to take Nairobi back to when Nairobi could take care of its people. Before you would get services like water, garbage collection etc. wherever you were in the city. That is not the case now.
3. What would you change about Nairobi?
I would change the culture of the people. There is no order in Nairobi and people do not have manners. Guys behave badly on the road without consideration for others. There is no road etiquette. People are overlapping all the time. At cross sections, people do not respect other’s right of way. People hate others overlapping but then when they are in a matatu they encourage the matatu driver to overlap.
The culture of leadership. We need servant-oriented leadership and I don’t mean it in a cliché manner. People want services delivered and they are not getting them. Guys in the slums pay 20 times what the rich pay for water. The water tankers taking water to the slums are owned by people working for the county who should be providing these services but they are not providing infrastructure and water so that they can do business.
Unity. Nairobi is on the cusp of greatness. Nairobi is a destination for foreign investors. Nairobi provides 60% of the Kenyan GDP. In the last 3 years, it has become easier to do business in Nairobi. But the issue of tribes and corruption are messing up this city. Nairobi’s leadership should be more inclusive. There needs to be equal opportunities for everybody. Getting services should not be about the tribe or who you know. We need to unite to take this city forward.
Cartels. We are not dealing with the cartels. I think we need to automate all the services of the county. We need to reduce the amount of cash that is handled by employees because it will greatly reduce the amount of corruption. Did you know that some of the streets are donated to different people every week? Somebody is given a street for the week and they are allowed to collect the money for parking and keep it. This money is then split with people higher up. A lot of revenue is lost that way.
In order to make the cartels disappear there has to be strong will from the top. Nairobi needs resolute leaders- Michuki type. I think I am that type of leader. I do not make promises; I make commitments and keep them. In TNA people were sceptical that I would change the way things are done politically. But ask anybody about TNA elections. They were free and fair which is what I had promised. I got into trouble because I refused to meet people and listen to them. They wanted things to be done in the way they always have. When I have decided on something I am resolute.
I want to be the governor of Nairobi. I have a one-term mentality. I want to prove a point. To show them that Nairobi can work. I understand Nairobi and where it has come from. I have nostalgia for the great Nairobi that was. I know Nairobi like the back of my hand, I have been everywhere. This is the city I love, and it is my home. I have been to many places around the world but I have never been outside Nairobi for longer than 19 days.
One of the things I want to work on is traffic. We need to have innovative ways of dealing with traffic. There are developers in Nairobi who are talented and we need to use their expertise to develop apps that will take us to the next level. One of the things I am thinking about is an app in which people can report overlapping. They would be able to take a picture/video of the overlapping cars and send this information through the app. This would go into a database. The system would issue a ticket to the offender. It would also take advantage of the cameras that are there, the ones that have been put up. People would behave and sanity would be restored to our roads. I have other ideas also but I don’t want to share too much about my strategy right now.
I also think that we need to make public transport public again. We have left our public transport to the private sector. This is a shame. No other country allows public transport to be fully in the hands of the private sector. We had public transport that worked well like Nyayo bus. If we can make sure that the system is not mismanaged as it was in the past we can provide services at a reasonable cost.
The county needs to prioritize transport. We need to create systems and have a mass transit plan. We can have private-public partnerships. You see where the grass is on the highways, we can have a tram system running there. There are plans for Nairobi, great plans that have not been implemented. We can implement these in less than 3 years. We have space and we can have a train system that can run above the city. We can build a transit system above the city on pillars.
4. As a professional how is it working in Nairobi? Is Nairobi open to what you do or what could be better? What are the challenges?
People may not know this but I have a firm that does financial consultancy. I am also in the steel and IT business. When I was younger it was a challenge trying to get a job after campus. This is why I started a cybercafé in town. It has made me pretty fast at typing. I used to design things for students, type for master’s students thesis and watch male customers to see that they were not browsing porn. One of the biggest challenges I have faced with most of the businesses I have run is corruption. When you want to be served and do business authorities want a cut in order for you to do business or get a license. I have my principles so I don’t.
Prejudice. I have gone to offices where the people only want to serve people from a certain community. Or they are talking in vernacular and if you don’t speak the language you are excluded. You do not feel comfortable in certain spaces. Everybody should feel comfortable and welcome in government offices. This is something I will change if I go into public office. No speaking in mother tongue in public spaces.
Traffic is a challenge in Nairobi. Getting around Nairobi is still very difficult. The distances that people have to commute to do business are ridiculous. A lot of money is wasted in traffic. This will change if the mass transit plan is implemented.
Now that I am well-known people want to treat me differently in government. I don’t do business with the government because I don’t want to take advantage of the favours that people want to give me. I don’t think there is any harm in doing business with the government. I think you can do it and provide great quality services or products. I don’t do it to avoid temptation.
Lack of systems. I think all businesses should be able to thrive regardless of who owns them. This is why I was passionate about the bill that would allow women and youth to be able to get at least 30% of government procurement. The Public Procurement and Asset Disposal Act, 2015 provides for “30% Procurement Reservation Criteria” for Youth, Women and Persons with disability. There is also The National Youth Employment Authority Bill. The National Employment Authority shall actively seek opportunities for all the job seekers in its database both locally and internationally, and prepare them for those opportunities through capacity-building programs.
Nairobi businesses should be able to thrive including hawkers. That is why I am introducing bills to put more money in the pockets of the people. Government should not be interfering with the business but allowing it to thrive. Take hawkers for example. Their businesses bring in billions to the economy but they are not treated well. I would create shopping streets for them. Give them opportunities to sell and serve customers. So after work, you would be able to go to certain streets and shop for a blouse/shirt or vegetables. Look at Eastleigh and its contribution to the economy. Yet they have no infrastructure, garbage disposal etc. We need to provide infrastructure to support businesses to flourish.
5. If you had a tourist friend coming in from outside the country what three things would you say to sell them the idea that Nairobi is worth visiting.
Well, I think they should visit Roadhouse Grill for nyama.
Dandora. It is a great place to experience hip hop, art and the music scene.
The National Park if they have never been.
If you would like to interact with Sakaja Johnson you can find him at @SakajaJohnson.