Rethinking Prosperity: Why I’m not embracing a mall per mile in Nairobi


As Nakumatt malls pop up all over the place in Nairobi, large impersonal retailers in Western countries are hitting hard times. People in these countries are demanding experiences that: make communities vibrant; are architecturally harmonious with their surroundings; are small business friendly and; offer localised rather than one-size-fits-all solutions.

The late bird catches a break
Do we have to follow the same path that these countries have travelled to reach similar conclusions, decades from now? Can we learn from the experiences of the West and avoid this fate?

Personally, I am 100% behind the community activists rallying for change in the West. As somebody who works from home, the social highlight of my day is taking a walk in the “village” where I reside. That is, a street lined with cafés, shops, a butcher, fishmonger, green grocer, restaurants and so on. While a handful of these are national franchises, the majority are not. It’s doubly refreshing to have a cup of tea in a quirky café that doesn’t look exactly the same as thousands of others worldwide. It’s exciting to look at a menu with produce sourced from the shop a couple of doors down – the same butcher you buy your meat from, that you even know by name.

The inconvenience of a convenience culture
Blinded by new, shiny things, it seems that Kenyans are gulping down this delivered consumerist convenience without pausing to consider the consequent inconveniences (to put it lightly) lurking in the dulling horizon.

Exhibit A: the tall apartment buildings springing up overzealously, without consideration for maximising the amount of daylight that tenants will experience or recreational space outdoors. Exhibit B: the rise of megamarts. In such an enterpreneurial country, this will surely further reduce the opportunities for innovative individuals with restricted seed capital, to carve out a space for themselves. Exhibit C: diversity, which is so rich in so many ways (from flora and fauna to cuisine and language) is quickly disappearing in every way! Exhibit D: in a culture where family and extended family bonds have long been an integral part of an individual’s life, I notice that relatives who live minutes away from each other can go the better part of a year without meeting.

I have to wonder how much of this demand for personal time has to do with the overwhelming nature of what we praise as convenient. Hours in traffic because we don’t want to share rides. Large architectural blocks that jarr against rather than complement our beautiful tropical landscape. No space safe from advertisers trying to sell you yet another piece of so-called convenience. No room to breathe.

An informed redefinition of prosperity
The benefit of getting to this point later than our counterparts in the West is that we can learn from and avoid their mistakes. All the insights are there and available for us if we stop and think to seek them out. We can sit and complain about the effects of colonialism, or we can be proactive and use the experiences of our former colonialists to chart a prosperous future for ourselves. Rather than blindly follow the paths they took, we can look at the things that are uniquely ours that can help us in our unique journey forward.

Prosperity is not synonymous with money. It’s a total package that incorporates the physical and mental health and wellbeing of a society, its environment and every single individual.

As much as many of us aspire to be just like the West, we still have a grasp on some of these elements vital for true prosperity – even though we may not regard them as such. However, if we use them as criteria in our quest for prosperity, and use our observations of other cases well, we can create a future that nourishes our countries in a holistic way.

And if we each accept that responsibility on a personal level, ineffective, myopic, psychophant leaders need not be true obstacles to this noble and necessary mission.

What are your thoughts on prosperity?

(Illustration by Lulu Kitololo)

1 thought on “Rethinking Prosperity: Why I’m not embracing a mall per mile in Nairobi”

  1. I couldn’t agree with you more. My definition of prosperity? We have to realize the riches we have been given and the abundance that we have to give. Then we can be aligned to the energy that provides exactly what is needed and when, i.e. prosperity. We in the diaspora too often look outside of ourselves when trying to define success. We give up close-nit communities, strong families, secure children and fresh food only to kill ourselves earning wages high enough to buy it all back. And even though the logic is seductive–learn how to play or get beaten out of the game–at some point we have to realize that having a “seat” at the table often leaves our bellies full and our bodies hungry for nutrients. When we see our value, we will see the value in everyone/thing around us and stop chasing every shining thing as if it were gold.

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