The Freelancer’s Guide to Kenya
Storyhunter international journalists Alex Pritz and Ruud Elmendorp and Kenyan journalist Simon ‘Se’ydou’ Mukali contributed to the writing and information in this article.
Kenya lies on the equator in East Africa, bordered by Tanzania, Uganda, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia, and the Indian Ocean on its south-east side.
There are 48 million people living in Kenya, which has a surface area of 581,309 square kilometers (224,445 sq mi). Nairobi, the capital and largest city, has a population of 3.36 million, making it the second-largest city in the African Great Lakes region after Dar es Salaam in Tanzania.
What is spoken:
The official languages are English and Kiswahili, which is the lingua franca for the Great Lakes region. English is the most common language used in business, school, and government.
In Nairobi, most people speak at least some English. Outside the capital, more people will speak local languages and dialects and in Nairobi’s slums, they often speak “Sheng,” a English-Swahili slang language. In all of Kenya, there are 69 different spoken languages.
If I only speak English, will I need a fixer?
A fixer isn’t necessary, but might be helpful depending on where you are going and whether your subjects speak Swahili or another local language. In urban areas, you generally won’t need one and if you’re traveling in the countryside, you will probably be with English speakers who can translate. If not, then you should hire one.
In many African countries the regulations for practicing journalism are strict. It can take a work permit and then several accreditations from government agencies. Visiting journalists have to register for a temporary press card, so if you’re coming in for a short period of time, a tourist visa may be the easiest option.
International journalists can apply for a visa online here.
Press card requirement:
If you are shooting official events, or government-related functions, you will need press accreditation. That card should be ready and visible to identify you as press, especially if you are shooting a protest, or an event where police will be present.
Visiting journalists can get press cards and accreditation for $50 USD from the Media Council of Kenya. You will be required to provide:
- A letter from the employer
- Professional Certificate that is either a Degree of Diploma in Communication from a recognized training institution
- Portfolio of work done either in Print or Broadcast ( Please provide the work not website links)
- A clear passport size digital photograph
- Valid Work permit
The major press club in the region is the Foreign Correspondents Association of East Africa. Foreign journalists should let them know they are in the region, and what they are working on in case they need help.
There are also a few other institutions that serve the media, such as the Kenya Union of Journalists (KUJ), the Association of Media Women in Kenya, the Kenya Parliamentary Journalists’ Association, the Kenya Correspondents Association, the Kenya Environment & Science Journalists Association, and the Kenya Sports Writers Association. These generally have professional and social meet-ups with varying activities.
Filming permit requirements:
If you’re shooting sensitive material, or shooting within Nairobi city, it’s a good idea to get a film permit from the Media Council of Kenya. A film permit costs $50 USD for visiting journalists and $10 USD per day of shooting.
You may also have to get a film license from the Kenya Film Classification Board (KFCB) and pay a fee for that. Then you are free to film except in restricted areas such as airports, government buildings, and military bases. If you’re shooting a film or movie, you will need to get attached to a local film agency who will be your ticket to getting a license to film in the country for a small fee.
Government press office:
The Media Council of Kenya is the independent, self-regulating national institution that oversees media standards and compliance. Board members and the Secretariat receive some government funding for some of its activities, but they strive to remain independent in their operations.
The Presidential Strategic Communications Unit handles all communications and directives from the president’s office and the government. There is also a Government Spokesman who articulates policy issues that concern citizens.
What to be careful of or avoid:
You need to be careful when reporting on politically sensitive issues in Kenya and the surrounding countries. Try not to get tangled in political situations, especially when Kenya is holding elections, which will bring a lot of journalists to the region. Be careful of large groups of people as dynamics can change quickly and become hostile. Slums, and especially Kibera, are often areas of opposition and will likely flare up during the elections.
You should also make sure that you have all of your documentation — press cards, permits, visas — with you and ready before you start an assignment. If you’re going somewhere remote or unfamiliar to you, hire a local fixer.
There are different security concerns in every part of the country. The most insecure areas are in the north and northeastern borders with South Sudan, Ethiopia, and Somalia. You should understand the security requirements for the area you will be working in. You may need to talk to people who’ve traveled recently to where you’re going, get a trusted local to help out with security arrangements, or even a police escort. In most cases, you can operate without worry, but you will still always want to have your documents in order in case you are detained by a government agency.
Plus, there is a high risk of crime in the country, and over forty percent of the population live below the poverty line. You should avoid walking alone for long periods with your camera kit or leaving your kit inside your car. You may even want to insure your camera equipment. Besides theft, the border of Somalia and Kenya sees frequent terror attacks. The US Travel Warning for Kenya says to avoid going the northeastern Kenyan counties of Mandera, Wajir, and Garissa, the coastal counties of Tana River and Lamu in their entirety, all areas north of Malindi in Kilifi County, and the Nairobi neighborhood of Eastleigh.
999: Police | 112: Firefighters | 911: Ambulance
Depending on where you reside, it is also advisable to get the number to the police station and hospitals in your immediate area as well as your local embassy.
Transportation across Africa tends to be very diversified. Anything that can move offers transport whether there is a road or not. Depending on your comfort level there are buses, minibuses, tuk tuks, taxis, boats, ox carts, or donkey carts. If you are reporting on assignment with no camera equipment, then local buses are the best. With equipment, taxis are the better option.
Taxis and Cars: The best ways to get around are usually either taxis or moto-taxis (called boda boda, meaning “border, border”). There are taxis available in most places and ride-sharing apps like Uber, Mondo Ride, Little, and Taxify can hail them as well. Alternatively, you can get the number of a trusted taxi driver or service and use them. Moto-taxis are available at many intersections, or can be flagged down on the street.
You can also rent a car very easily for around $50 USD a day, and can use a foreign license as long as you have been in the country for less than three months. However, be careful because cars drive on the left and drivers in Nairobi are notoriously reckless, making road accidents a serious danger.
Buses: Most locals use the matatus (minibuses) to get around, which charge an average fee from half a dollar to a dollar. However, for non-locals, they can be a bit confusing and inconvenient as they don’t operate on a regular time schedule. There is an open-source “Digital Matatus” project that can help you get around.
Bikes: Biking is still catching on in the country but there are small companies such as Baiskeli Adventures leading the way for bicycle hires. The main challenge is the lack of cycling lanes, which make it dangerous to ride on roads and highways.
83% of Kenyans are Christian followed by a minority of Muslims, who make up around 11% of the population and mainly live in the coastal region. Other practiced religions are Hinduism and indigenous beliefs, such as traditional Kikuyu (Kenya’s largest ethnic group) religion.
How is religion visible in day-to-day life?
There is a very vibrant church culture, and you can see churches and mosques in many neighborhoods. Fridays are Muslim prayer days, but most businesses are open. However, on Sundays most businesses close because people go to church and see it as a rest day.
Some meetings and many household meals or even events will start with a word of prayer. Matatus, buses, and even private cars can be seen sporting bibles verses on their interiors or exteriors. Some businesses are named after Biblical characters or scripture. It’s also not unusual to get a blessing in conversations. On the predominantly Muslim coast, and northeastern part of the country, you should be respectful and dress and act modestly.
Things you’ll find here that you won’t find anywhere:
Nairobi has one of the world’s largest national parks inside the city — Nairobi National Park — and you can see the giraffes and zebras from overhead when you fly into the airport. Beyond Nairobi, Kenya has huge wildlife preserves with a stunning array of unique animals, including elephants and lions. In July and August, there is a Great Wildebeest migration at Serengeti.
As a foreigner and journalist, it can be offensive to join political discussions and take a side. However, most of the country doesn’t have extremely conservative values, so just be respectful and you’ll be okay.
Are there restrictions to working as a male or female journalist?
Not really. Female journalists can work in the field and face similar risks as men. On rare instances, traditional spaces won’t allow women to film certain things due to cultural beliefs, but this is usually overcome by pairing with a male crew.
How to blend in:
Get a fixer and read up on the country and what’s happening (see helpful resources below). It can be helpful to have a local give you a crash course, but you can also act like a local by staying in a cheap apartment instead of a hotel. And by buying your groceries and airtime from the kiosks on the street and not the supermarket. Say good morning to people, good afternoon, and good evening. Above all, if the security situation allows, you should walk as much as you can. And don’t wear too much khaki or you’ll look like you’re on safari!
Journalists are often coming and going from Nairobi, so there’s usually a free couch you can crash on if you ask around. Otherwise, Airbnb or Booking.com are good options. There are also plenty of hotels in Nairobi.
Great places to work from:
The easiest and most reliable coffee shops to work from are the major chains: Java, ArtCaffe, and Dorman’s. You can usually find one at any shopping center, or by asking around for the closest location. They generally have free wifi for customers. The hippest cafe in Nairobi and a place where other journalists hang out is Wasp & Sprout. It’s located in Loresh, and has coffee, brunch, and wares made by local artisans.
There are also a couple open plan creative spaces where you can meet fellow professionals and book space to do some work:
- iHub is an open community space, a part vector for investors and VCs, and part incubator. They have a cafe there called Pete’s, which has fast Internet, good burritos, and a nice terrace.
- Nailab is a business incubator where you can book space.
Equipment rental shops:
While there are no shops that specialize in camera rentals, there are plenty of production houses and individuals with good kits and equipment.
- Nathan Collett: email email@example.com or call +254–722-850–128
- Alex Pritz: email firstname.lastname@example.org or call +254–704-926–595
- Vivid Features: email email@example.com or call +254–722-323–836
In most major towns there is decent Internet access, but smaller towns and villages certainly won’t have wired Internet service, so it is best to plan ahead. In most of the country, including many remote areas, it is possible to get 3G Internet on a smartphone. Otherwise, the average internet speed for the country is 15mbps, which will let you upload and download video.
Kenya uses “Type G” British plugs and the standard voltage is 220V — 240V running at 50Hz.
Local currency is the Kenyan shilling, which converts from about 100 KES to $1 USD. Kenya’s major banks accept Visa cards in their ATMs, though there may be transaction fee or international charges.
Bars and restaurants where expat journalists tend to gather:
The Foreign Correspondents’ Association of East Africa holds monthly social gatherings in Nairobi. There are also a number of good bars and restaurants around the city:
- J’s Fresh Bar & Kitchen: A gastropub that usually has live music and DJs every night.
- Havana: Located in Westlands, Havana Bar and Restaurant is a good standby for grabbing a beer.
- Alchemist: Next door to Havana, The Alchemist Bar offers food, drinks, and live music in an outdoor setting.
- Kengele’s Lavington Green: Kengele’s is a bistro and bar that is a great place to watch sports matches.
Not-to-be missed places:
- Nairobi National Park has over 400 animal species in it.
- Take a trip to the coast to visit the beaches near Malindi and Lamu.
- Do a game drive in Serengeti and other great national parks to observe wildlife.
- The Great Rift Valley for beautiful views.
- David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust to see the baby elephants from 11am to 12pm every day of the week.
- Blankets and Wine is a series of music festivals, and a great way to spend a Sunday during the summer months.
Best local restaurants in Nairobi:
- The Carnivore: Restaurant and bar known for its great menu, drinks, and ambience.
- Fogo Gaucho: An excellent Brazilian steak house.
- The Talisman: Restaurant that has a great fusion of African, Pan-Asian, and European cuisine.
- MAMA Oliech Restaurant: A gem for local fresh fish cuisine.
Best nightlife and bars in Nairobi:
- Black Diamond: Nightclub open 24 hours.
- Molly’s Pub: A good bar in the Westlands.
- K1 Klub House: An upscale nightclub with four bars.
- Brew Bistro & Lounge: A popular mini-brewery.
Helpful resources for journalists:
Newspapers & News: Read the local dailies such as the East African, The Business Daily, Daily Nation, and The Standard in order to understand the country better. Also follow Kenyan sites and personalities on Twitter and Facebook to truly get a grasp of things.
Magazines: Read UP Magazine for arts and culture in Nairobi and the Nairobi Side Hustle Magazine for an inside guide to the city.
Sites: Foreign Correspondent’s Association of East Africa Facebook group, Kenya Union of Journalists, Kenya Fixer
Apps: WhatsApp is valuable app for keeping in touch with your contacts. Mpesa is a great app for mobile money exchange you can use easily.
Networks: Once in Kenya and depending on the length of your stay, it is advisable to get a local SIM card from one of the two mobile networks — Safaricom or Airtel — to ease your communication. Most of the people you meet will have mobile phones and having them on similar networks will make things easier for you.
Storyhunter freelancers who collaborated on this:
Ruud Elmendorp is a Dutch video journalist traveling across Africa for features and documentaries on conflict and development. Ruud delivers his work to a variety of clients across the globe. He was last seen on the streets of Mogadishu producing documentaries.
Alex Pritz is a filmmaker and journalist dancing between short documentaries, news video, and commercial work for the past six years. He mostly works in East Africa on short documentaries, and often in hard-to-reach locations. He’s worked in Kenya, Somalia, Iraq, South Sudan, Sudan, Liberia, Burundi, Haiti, Niger, and a handful of other countries. He’s interested in films that leave viewers with questions, not answers, and is always looking for new people to collaborate with.
Simon ‘Se’ydou’ Mukali is a filmmaker and video journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya. He has worked for over a decade in East Africa — Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania — making productions for television and film. Currently, he is developing documentaries and fiction films on fresh African stories and is a Creative Director at a production company.