Category Archives: Kenya domestic tourist

First Class: Kenya Railways vs SGR

This is the first class cabin of the lunatic express, the 120-year-old Kenya Railways line (operated by Rift Valley Railways – RVR), that the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) is meant to improve on. The cabins are about 40 years old; they are mostly used by tourists or adventurous travelers and families taking scenic journeys to and from the Coast or Rift Valley.
It was disappointing to see pictures from Kenya Railways of what #SGR “first class” will be – it looks like a third class with swivels seats – this after a $3.2 billion mega-project?. Yes, the trains will move faster, but apparently, they won’t go too fast because this is Kenya where they may encounter people or wildlife on the tracks. 

By looking at this chart of train cabin seats in China, KR is a correct, but the first class of China and the new SGR is not the same as the first class on the old (RVR)/Kenya Railways. China has first, second, and business class (which has lie flat seats) like an aircraft – but no economy class.

What we know as the first class of the old Kenya railways, qualifies as a luxurious “sleeper coach” in China which offers privacy and comfort. SGR Journeys will be faster, perhaps 5 hours from Nairobi to Mombasa compared to the current train service by RVR which takes 15-20 hours. The  train is also used by hundreds of residents who live in small towns along the railway and who will appreciate the improved new cabins.

But will Kenya Railways offer some new sleeper cabins to improve on the old railway service? The Kenya Economic Survey 2016 shows there has been a continuous decline in rail passenger indicators of journey, passenger-km and revenue. The major reason is prioritizing on the freight, which is more profitable than passengers’ services hence the available locomotives are prioritized to freight.

Understanding African Flyers

Last year, Sabre released a report on African flyers and how airlines could reach and serve them better or enhance the flying experience. It broke down how nationals of four countries – Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa and Egypt – perceived different aspects of flying including costs, in-flight preferences, pain points, experiences, and decisions on whether to use local or foreign airlines.


It also looked at if the introduction of a single passport would impact traveling across the continent. The challenge of getting a visa was cited as a major hindrance for Africans seeking to travel more alongside costs, lack of routes, safety, and stressful flights.

 

Conclusions: 

  • More airlines need in-flight Wi-Fi.
  • Many airlines have uncomfortable flights, and passengers will pay more to get better experiences. They are willing to spend ($104), six times the global average, for this.
  • The cost of flying is still high (national taxes are a major reason for this)
  • Removal of visa’s or the ability  to visa on-arrival will have more impact than a pan-African or an African Union passport.

And specifically for Kenya Airways,

Kenyans passengers would (extra) pay for:

  • Inflight Wi-Fi
  • Extra luggage

Kenyans will choose KQ over a foreign airline for:

  • Cheaper tickets
  • Superior customer service

RwandAir Airbus A330

After almost three hours winding through about a dozen checkpoints and queues inside Murtala Muhammed International Airport in Lagos, it was quite a pleasant sight to get to see daylight and planes lined up.

Three days before, Rwandair flight 200 from Kigali to Lagos was operated by a B737-700 and 201 from  Lagos to Kigali was also meant to be on a similar aircraft, but parked in at the gate  was an  unusually large Rwandair plane.

RwandAir recently acquired an Airbus A330-200 (christened Ubumwe) and with another Airbus A330-300 due in November, they are making a big splash about the planes. The new aircraft even featuring in minister’s speech in Lagos and on TV and newspaper advertisements about Rwandair connecting Africa (never mind that Ethiopian, KQ, SAA, Arik have had similar wide-body twin jets for a decade).rwanda-a330-2

On this day, many of the electronic systems at the Lagos  airport were down, and virtually everything was done manually, with boarding passes written by hand. At check-in, I had asked for an aisle seat and the man at the counter nodded in acknowledgment, but when I looked at my boarding pass, my seat number was “F/S” – as was everyone else’s – this meant “free-seating”.

The airline staff at the boarding gate first ushered in the passengers who were in business class, and this included Clare Akamanzi,  Head, Strategy & Policy Unit, Office of the Rwanda President, who had been down in the queues, and gone through the whole laborious check in process like an ordinary passenger, including having her suitcase opened, then wrapped for security purposes. The airport staff said she was a Minister but clearly she did not behave like any minister they might have seen.

Other passengers were then allowed on board, with through the jet bridge that had been placed at a mid-cabin door and were then directed to pick any seat in economy class. The new plane has two large economy class cabins, a small premium economy one, and a business one near the front, for a total capacity of 274 passengers. Everyone in economy flopped into a seat relieved at the abundance bin space and many empty seats on the flight.

Points about the flight, using this borrowed format (via AU traveller)  

Airline review: RwandAir economy class, Lagos to Kigali

The airline operates a dream miles program on a visa card, but this was only my first round trip with RwandAir. The airline is also not part of any miles alliance partnership now.

rwanda-a330CLASS: Economy, window in the third row of the second cabin.

DURATION: 4h 30m.

FREQUENCY: WB 201 between Lagos to Kigali is 4X a week: Mon, Wed, Fri, Sun  (12:00 17:30)

THE SEAT: The configuration here is 2-4-2 in both economy cabins and many of the seats were empty. All the seats have personal touch screen entertainment displays, with light and flight attendant controls. There is also a USB  charger next to the screen.

ENTERTAINMENT: The touch screen system was quite nimble. My first set of headphones, given out after take-off did not work, but the second one did. You touch the screen and pick out  movies, TV clips, and games. The selection is rather thin, and you have to pause to escape from a menu but the system is nice once you’re used to it.

The touchscreen menu options are in 6 languages – English, Kinyarwanda, French, Swahili Arabic, and Mandarin?/Chinese. There were other menu options like gambling games, a kids selection with games and movies and a music selection – with pop hits, African, Classical etc. I flipped back and forth between “Batman vs. Superman” and “Avatar” movies, and the system allows you to resume from where you left off in any movie or game.

BAGGAGE: This was dictated by Murtala airport where there is an elaborate  but time-consuming luggage procedure of weighing, tagging, scanning, searching physically, then wrapping the bags . A friend who had flown in from Kigali with two small backpacks was now told he could only carry one bag on board and check the other one as luggage on this RwandAir flight. We all lost our luggage and filed reports in Nairobi and the luggage has just been delivered (two days later).

COMFORT: Both the RwandAir legs between Lagos and Kigali are afternoon flights that arrive in the evening and match morning arrivals and night departures from Kigali, Rwanda.

SERVICE: The flight took off about twenty minutes late and there were several apologies made during P/A announcements to passengers.  In addition to the entertainment system, there is a Wi-Fi service on board though I was not able to connect. But @LucyMbabazi did on the very next RwandAir Airbus A330 flight and she happily reported on that, and other niceties  like a  massage chair. lucya330biz

 FOOD: There was a chicken or beef option with lunch about an hour into the flight.  The crew had two meal services sessions, one with the meal, a beverage before touchdown from which they did not deviate . They were rather stingy and would not add an extra beer, unlike the crew on the earlier RwandAir 737 flight. They also serve Rwandan coffee or tea. The meal serving trays are rather small, and you find yourself placing wrappers and utensils in your lap as you peel and eat.

ONE MORE THING: On landing in Kigali, RwandAir ground staff knew that there were late passengers connecting on  to other flight and they gave them priority with simultaneous  immigration and check-in e.g. for Entebbe, Johannesburg and Nairobi They had even pre-printed boarding passes for some passengers, and called them up by name to rush them through to the next flights –  nice attention to detail!

rwanda-a330-3

Some facilities are different about the  plane and that may mean they may have some breakages e.g with the bathroom doors that fold in the middle to open, rather than swing out (many passengers pushed and pulled them) and the headphones have a jack you fold in half to insert and use) .

THE VERDICT: Nice RwandAir flight on the new aircraft. The crew was probably testing out the new A330 and wanted to be efficient with a minister on board.

Nairobi-Mombasa Highway Transforms

For a long time, motorists on the road trip to Mombasa had endless savannah and semi arid brush-land as their only view, with few sizeable towns and centres along the highway. Many travelers would drive the long stretch between Nairobi-Mtito Andei or even up to Voi, before deigning to stop for refreshments and use of sanitation facilities at what were mostly only petrol station joints. Many of the Colonial era taverns and Inns along the Highway had fallen either into disrepair or closed completely. And a night in Voi meant accessing the adjacent Tsavo East National Park to stay in Voi Safari Lodge.

Not anymore. Recent events have led to a great change in the landscape along the Highway. Sure the great vast ranches of Konza are still largely intact but urban development has become a major feature of the highway with numerous new centres expanding and what were once junction centres now turning into overnight stop points or places of bustling with 24-hour economic activity. A number of factors have contributed to these developments and are manifested in some of the features observed.

Konza City: Previously tiny centres such as Kyumvi (Chumvi) or the Machakos turnoff have now become major truck stops. Investors have established vehicle sales centres nearby and the price of land is sky rocketing going by rough quotations one receives. Further along is Malili centre which sprung up once news of the plan publicized by the grand coalition government about a new Technological (ICT) city to be built at Konza, that was meant to take away pressure of land and space from Nairobi. The city was touted as a Kenya’s Silicon Valley and out of nowhere, Malili town sprung up right next to the borders of the proposed, but yet to be built, Techno-City.

Standard Gauge Railway (SGR):  This is Kenya’s single largest investment in infrastructure. As is widely known, the project replaces the old Uganda Railway (also known as the Lunatic Line) from Mombasa to Uganda. The first phase starts from Mombasa to Nairobi with advanced plans to extend it first to Naivasha and then to Kisumu and Malaba. When the SGR is done, the railway will need return cargo i.e from Western Kenya or Nairobi to Mombasa to be viable, and to get more trucks off the road.

Whatever the merits or demerits of this project is not for debate here but what must be stated are the numerous economic activities and developments that have been brought about by this project.

As the SGR is constructed, groups of the thousands of workers involved must be watered, fed, housed, clothed, transported, treated and entertained along the route. This direct and multiplier effect of the project is an indication of heavy spending. Elevated sections of the railway are a sight to behold especially for one who has not travelled the route for a long time. Major site stations chosen include Makindu, a town whose most distinct feature is the Sikh Temple. A Skygo motor cycle assembly factory is one of the new investments set up by a local born and bred entrepreneur, while new entertainment joints such as Shushan Place and Oasis  have emerged. emali

At Emali, Nakumatt, Kenya’s largest Supermarket chain by sales volume, products variety and retail outlets has deigned it fit to set up shop. The petrol station eateries of Mtito Andei which marks the half way stop between Nairobi and Mombasa have changed tremendously. Weary travellers alighting from luxury coaches can now relax in massage chairs. Voi town has also enjoyed a boom in construction of residential and commercial real estate that as previously unimaginable. These are all visible signs that there is money along the highway.

Oil Pipeline: Kenya is replacing its over 40-year-old Mombasa to Nairobi oil pipeline. This project has also attracted huge groups of workers contributing to the activity along the highways in camps and sections nearby.

Concrete Poles Not to be forgotten as a major activity is the replacement of old wooden electricity poles by the Kenya Power & Lighting Company with heavier concrete ones.Poles

Devolution: It is indeed true that devolution has  brought major developments and investments in the towns along the highway. The County Governments have spent on setting up their structures and attempting to deliver services to their people; the heavy spending has indeed yielded change, and this has attracted new players even in the tourist sector at Tsavo. One such establishment is the Zomeni Lion Hill Lodge in Voi, 6 km outside town along the road to the Tsavo East National Park Gate which is run by the knowledgeable father and son duo of Basil and Agam. The lodge features 8 rooms and 4 tented rooms with delightful views of the vast Tsavo park. It is secured from wild animals by electric fence, and is one of the new joints that offer real variety to local and international tourists. There are two air strips ay Voi, one by KWS in the park

Lion Hill Conclusion: This article is not intended as a feel good piece but an appreciation of tremendous changes that have taken place along the highway. The writer has not spent time in many of the centres and towns to appreciate other factors such as the availability or lack of water, sanitation, waste management or security among others let alone whether much of this development is affordable, planned or sustainable.

But for long time travelers, it may be worth it skipping that flight to Mombasa and instead taking a day long drive and appreciate the changes that have taken place along the highway. Although the Mariakani Weighbridge headache is ever-present, newer routes into Mombasa or the South Coast are opening up. Both County and National Government are endeavoring to create alternatives through Kaloleni to the North Coast and Samburu to the South Coast.

Today’s children will never know what the old highway looked like before, e.g why Man Eaters was named so, or appreciate that the drive down to the Coast used to be about five hours only (it now takes about 10 hours to drive between Nairobi and Mombasa)  or why is the lane going towards Mombasa is smoother than the uneven lane climbing towards Nairobi. But who else to tell the story than their parents when caught for speeding between Mtito-Andei and Voi by the NTSA?

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Britain Exits the EU: What Does this mean for Kenya?

Britain’s decision to exit the European Union (EU), as announced from the results of Thursday’s landmark “Brexit” referendum has been a hot topic around the world. 33.6 Million Britons flocked to the polling booths on Thursday with the ‘leave’ campaign marginally taking the victory with a 52%-48% vote. There is however a general consensus of uncertainty with what the UK’s (United Kingdom) decision holds for the future, with particular relevance to what it means for Kenya. Britain bus

Britain is a key ally, as well as Kenya’s third largest export market with the value of exports at Sh40 Billion in 2015. The Central Bank of Kenya has already stated that it is ready to intervene and minimize disruption in money markets. Kunal Ajmera, COO of Grant Thornton Kenya provides an insight into how Britain’s decision to leave affects trade decisions and tourism in Kenya:

  1. Britain was not just any member of the EU but also one of the largest contributors and it’s most prosperous. Depending on how things unfold in the coming years other members may also demand for a referendum and this would ultimately weaken the EU substantially.
  2. The EU spends about 100 million euros per year on development co-operation in Kenya. With uncertainties over Europe due to Brexit we may see a reduced funding in coming years. We could see funding in key projects start to be cut.
  3. Investors anywhere in the world hate uncertainty and anxiety. Brexit leaves many questions unanswered and it will can take more than a year to get some clarity. Until that happens global economy, money markets and stock exchange may go through volatility and general negativity as we are currently seeing happen.Britain sign
  4. It is highly likely that US Dollar($) will gain strength against major currencies in the world and GBP(£) will lose its value, the initial figures show that on the day of the results alone, the GBP slumped to a thirty year low, falling as much as 11% in the hours after the result. This therefore means that the Kenyan Shilling will be under increased pressure. It would be wise for businesses in Kenya to hedge against a future raise in dollar value.
  5. The UK is Kenya’s largest tourist source market. At its peak Kenya received 198,000 tourists from UK in 2013. The tourist arrival numbers from the UK have only just started to increase in last few months after years of travel advisory and terror threats. However with GBP weakening due to Brexit, it will cost the British tourists more to travel to Kenya and we may see reduced number of arrivals from UK in near future.
  6. Kenya exports a substantial number of products to the UK every year. The UK is the second largest export market for Kenya after Uganda. So far these exports were governed by EU trade laws. With UK exiting the EU, Kenya may need to re-negotiate the terms for export and this may take even a year resulting in to disruption and uncertainty.
  7. In the immediate short term, the UK is bound to have slower economic growth or even recession due to the Brexit referendum. This will also affect how it trades with other countries in the world. Since the UK is one of Kenya’s biggest trading partner, businesses in Kenya that export to the UK are bound to be nervous and must prepare for slump in business.

Britain look rightHowever, Kunal offers consolation by highlighting the potential in this decision. He states, “It’s not all doom and gloom. Brexit also presents new set of opportunities. EU laws on import and export are some of the most stringent in the world especially with agriculture, dairy, and meat items. The UK can now decide its own rules for import and export, new products may become eligible. It is worth noting that Kenya’s largest export to UK is agriculture/horticulture products.”

For further insight into the Brexit developments and its implications keep following Grant Thornton Kenya on twitter and Facebook.