As part of new non-profit work I’m doing, I ended up I spending the majority of June in Nairobi, Kenya and wanted to share some technology related tips regarding international travel in Kenya, which I found as complicated as I did interesting. For the purposes of this article, I’ll remain focused on Nairobi but will probably expand upon this more in the future to other cities, should you have a future interest in visiting Kenya and wish to bookmark this article.
Upon arriving in Kenya you’ll want to pick up a local SIM card for your phone — and not solely or even primarily for the purpose of communication. Your phone becomes a necessary form of payment in many places in Kenya, so land prepared with enough foreign currency to buy both the SIM card and pay for a taxi to your immediate destination. Ignoring these two key points will make getting around quite difficult.
Mobile communication — especially banking — is huge in Kenya. This is true for most of Africa, India, and China. For Kenya, there are two major choices:
When at the airport, or any of the nearby malls, keep an eye out for the green and white Safaricom stores. You’ll want to make an immediate pit stop at one of these stores to acquire a SIM card and also create an M-PESA account (pronounced: "em pesa") for mobile banking, which most visitors will need for payment at some point in their trip.
Depending on your current phone provider and/or phone hardware, you might need to double check you can swap SIMs (i.e. from an unlocked phone) without hassle prior to arrival. In my case, I’m using Verizon and bought my iPhone a few years back so was automatically unlocked after 60 days. This meant I could swap between my newly bought Safaricom SIM and Verizon SIM by shutting down my phone, swapping the SIMs, and turning on my phone again.
I chose a SIM card which included a 5GB data plan with no cellular minutes to suit my needs. You can buy both data and minutes but the good news is that while you are not able to make local calls you can receive them. Local access is handy because often the Uber/Bolt drivers will want to call to confirm pickup.
With the a Safaricom SIM inserted and your phone powered on, you’ll be able to navigate to
→ Cellular → SIM Applications on your iPhone and select from either Safaricom+ or M-PESA apps for
further capabilities. The M-PESA app was quite handy for paying friends/colleagues or merchant goods
and/or services. You can also dial
*456# from your phone’s dial pad for additional
M-PESA options. The user interface is amusing because navigating the various screens reduces your
smart phone to a feature phone. Here are a few screenshots, for example:
Besides using cash and/or credit cards, M-PESA is the most common way to manage transactions in Kenya, including for taxis, restaurants, goods, services, etc. Here are a few applications you can install for managing your M-PESA account:
M-PESA - An iOS app for managing payment which is directly linked to your SIM card. Various transactions fees are incurred when paying others or for goods and services and depend on the amount of money transferred.
Sendwave - An iOS app for sending money from bank accounts to M-PESA accounts. This can be a handy mobile solution for converting your own currency into M-PESA without having to visit a Safaricom store directly. The only problem is that each transaction suffers a 2% transaction fee. See here for details. In my case, I couldn’t get this app to work beyond first use, which is probably for the best since I received several alerts about fraud via Sendwave.
The following are few screenshots of both the M-PESA and Sendwave apps:
One of the harshest lessons I learned was the absolute necessity of using Uber and Bolt and having both configured prior to arrival. Even though all of my credit cards were alerted of upcoming international travel, I had one heck of a time getting either app to work in Kenya without errors. I kept getting fraud alerts and being denied when using my credit cards for taxi services. I don’t know if the problem was because I downloaded and set up the apps upon arrival in Kenya rather than at home or because I was consistently using VPN, which made me look like I was either in the Netherlands or South Africa. Perhaps both. I tried switching my VPN to the United States temporarily in hopes to manually resolve the issue, but that proved no avail either.
I eventually submitted a support ticket to resolve the issue, which allowed me to at least use Uber in the end. I would have preferred to use Bolt since I have serious reservations about the ethics of Uber — not that Bolt is outstanding either. Here are the links to both apps along with a few additional notes:
Uber - A major player in Kenya. After attempting to contact local support and submitting a support ticket, I was able to get this app to work with one of my credit cards. Prior to getting credit card support, I’d have to use the cash option, which meant always having enough money to cover fare in both directions. Also, Chap Chap drivers generally don’t have cash on them, which means you’ll overpay 10 to 50 shillings due to lack of change.
Bolt - An alternative to Uber. Supports Apple Pay, which was nice to see, but I could never get it to work even when opting to use cash.
Other than Chap Chaps, you could also hop in one of the many matatus, which are also a major source of street congestion, or walk. Walking isn’t that great of an option, though, since there are very few sidewalks which are also not overrun by bodas. This is especially true at night where you are more likely to have loose items pilfered. Though I normally love to walk a new city as much as possible, I opted to stick with Chap Chaps.
Keeping your electronics charged should always top of mind because there are a lot of plugs and sockets used around the world. I’ve been using the Kensington K33117 International Travel Plug Adapter for many years, and I like the Kensington adapter because it’s compact and has worked well when traveling in Mexico, Europe, Africa, etc. However, I did have some issues keeping my 13'' Apple MacBook Air charged via the Kensington due to issues with voltage. While the adaptor did function, I did pick up the following more efficient options to alleviate and reduce chance of not being able to keep my laptop or other electronics fully charged:
EPICKA Universal Travel Adapter One International Wall Charger AC Plug Adaptor with 5.6A Smart Power and and 3.0A USB Type-C for USA EU UK AUS - A universal adapter with fuses for voltage protection.
All in ONE World Travel Plug Power Adapter 2000 Watts Voltage Converter Step Down 220V to 110V for Hair Dryer Steam Iron Laptop MacBook Cell Phone - US to UK AU Europe Over 150 Countries - Handy as a backup to the EPICKA for situations where you need to convert as well as adapt power especially for appliances that require a higher voltage.
This was the second time I’ve been in Africa and Nairobi is much more of a metropolitan city compared to Addis Ababa or Mek’ele in Ethiopia. For instance, my last trip required more skill with sunscreen and back country endurance than payment via SIM card. It was great being back but also getting a different perspective of the continent. With any luck, I’ll be exploring more of East Africa in the future. 🎉