How’s Africa? Coffee, Wifi and Zero 7

Every now and then I get an email or Facebook message from an old friend at home asking ‘How’s Africa?’ I never know where to start. How would you answer if someone asked you ‘How’s Europe?’

(Actually, I know how I’d answer that one now: Bankrupt.)

Africa has 53 countries, more than 800m people and thousands of different languages. Yet in the UK it’s seen by many as a homogenous land mass where the natives hack each other to death with machetes, where the leaders are all corrupt, where there is only genocide and famine. White people can help save the poor Africans by giving money to charity.

I exaggerate, but you get the point.

I accept I haven’t helped matters much. Most of my reporting here has been about war and poverty. One of the problems is that stories about entrepreneurs or technology or normal every day life are rarely seen as ‘news’. I’ve lost count of the number of more upbeat stories about life in Africa I’ve had rejected by editors in London.

So, in an effort to do a little to change perceptions (and make up for past misdemeanors), consider this the first in a hopefully long-lasting series about life in Africa that doesn’t fit the stereotypes.

I’m writing this from Art Caffe, a new cafe in Nairobi’s Westlands district. It has plush leather sofas, smooth wooden floors and high ceilings. By day it’s a cafe serving pretty good coffee and some great pastries (the almond croissant is my current favourite). At night it transforms into a restaurant – mainly pizzas and pasta.

As I type there are about half a dozen Kenyans on laptops taking advantage of the relatively fast internet. Zero 7 is playing on the stereo.

Art caffe is merely the latest in a string of coffee shops that have opened in Nairobi over the past decade. Kenya grows some great coffee but until chains like Java and Dormans were established it was almost impossible to find a cup of Kenyan coffee in Kenya.

The success of Nairobi’s upmarket cafes has little to do with the city’s large ex-pat population (although I’d say about a third of the clientele right now are wazungu). Instead they are taking advantage of the city’s growing middle class. 

Kenya’s post-election violence knocked the country’s economy growth back a few percentage points – and they’re still not out of the woods yet – but promising signs are everywhere. Billboards in Westlands advertise the latest Blackberries, satellite TV and cheap mortgages. US-style shopping malls like Westgate (where Art Caffe is situated) are thronging at weekends with young Kenyans buying designer clothes and soft furnishings.

More than half the population still lives on less than $1 a day and the country is still struggling to create enough jobs for its rapidly expanding workforce, but the success of places like Art Caffe is, I think, a sign of hope.

Anyway, back to work. I’ve been commissioned to write a piece about war and poverty – this time in Congo.

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