Category Archives: Kenya domestic tourist

Guide to Togo and Benin

A guest post from a media gathering trip to these two French-speaking countries that lie between Ghana and Nigeria.

Getting There: Took Ethiopian Airlines – Nairobi – Addis – Lome, then by car to Cotonou and then back to Addis and Nairobi. Ethiopian flies to both countries. Initially, I had set my trip to go into and out of Lome, but changed it mid trip. The expense for the change was significant, but I assume it would have been minimal if I had done it that way up front. The round trip cost was $750 plus $350 for the change.

On arrival: Arriving in Lome was easy, but the visa on arrival (American passport) was a bit of a pain of a process and wait. There was a list of the cost for every country in the world, except America and of course mine was much more than any listed. It was 10-20,000 CFA for most countries, while the US one was 27,000. I paid in USD cash, but they had to exchange it into CFA. It’s better to pay in CFA I’m sure.

Getting around: I had private transport the whole time. In both Togo and Benin, the massive majority of people move via private motorcycle. There are many boda for hire as well. A few matatu type transportation as well and the rare taxi car for hire. The large buses were for transport to other towns and the small minivan was not seen on the highways between towns. There did not seem to be much foot traffic like you have in Nairobi. Cars and bikes were not fighting for space and everything seemed to flow smoothly.

Benin: Walking around my hotel was safe. It is next to the airport and it seemed that many of the government offices and embassy’s were around, so the security was higher. Many of my local friends have been pick pocketed on the streets, but violence doesn’t seem to be as common as in Nairobi.

Togo seemed very safe overall. The crowds were smaller. A slower pace of life.

Staying in touch: It was very easy to get a local SIM card, much like in Kenya. Costs were very comparable. I forget the network in Togo, but I’m using MTN in Benin. I don’t recall if I could use Safaricom, I didn’t even try. I have not tried calling international on either network. Wi-Fi seems to be common, but the speeds vary a lot and the network is down often. I suspect it’s a problem with the ISP more than the local network. In Togo, my colleague’s wife happens to work at the office of the mobile company. I provided my passport and she gave me a SIM card. In Benin, a friend purchased the card for me, but I suspect it only required a copy of ID to obtain.
Where to Stay: I think the median cost is $60. I started at a place that cost $25 without breakfast that was a rat hole. I moved to a western level of accommodation for $80 with breakfast. All the hotels I stayed in, no matter how nice, always had AC & Wi-Fi.

Electricity was surprisingly good. I honestly don’t recall a single power cut, but I’m sure they happened. Most of the hostels had a generator.

Eating Out: Foo Foo is a staple somewhat similar to ugali. It’s wet and slimy and has more flavour to it, but fermented, like Ethiopian injera. Some forms have a lot more flavour than others with cassava being a common ingredient. No clue on the beer, but easy to get everywhere, as is French wine, even upcountry.

No clue with bar conversation is – it’s also all in French. French is a must. I had a variety of hosts with me the whole time. The only English I found was the little spoken by the staff in the hotel. I very much doubt there is a local English paper.

Shopping: in Benin, there is a very small market in front of a very nice supermarket next to the airport. It seems the majority of gifts are cloth based. I did see some very unique, artistic metal work. Of course, there is also the standard wooden animals. I was told there is another market, but I was not able to attend.

In Togo: I was taken to a small market with maybe a dozen stalls with a wide variety of items. For the most part, pretty similar to what you find in Kenya. There was one guy selling silver jewelry, like what you find in Ethiopia.

Sightseeing: In Togo,  there is the main museum next to their national monument, but I didn’t have time to visit. The beach is incredible, but only locals use it. There doesn’t seem to be any structured area for tourism.

In Benin, the interior mountains are incredible sites to see, massive slabs of granite, there is a very famous sighting of Mary in Dassa. A very large church has been built there and every year massive numbers of West African Catholics come for a special service and ceremony. The church is only used for this event. I’m told that the town comes to a standstill. The church could probably hold over 10,000 people and I was told the grounds outside are completely covered in standing room only. I imagine over 25,000 people attend.

Card usage is extremely rare, even for nice restaurants. Food costs vary from $1 (roadside) to $20 (nicest restaurant) for a meal. CFA is used in both Togo & Benin everywhere.  I used an ATM everywhere. They were found all over town. I used CFA for everything.

Odd Points: Partial buildings: West Africa’s way of saving money is to build their homes and churches over many years as money comes. Sadly, I have seen in rural Burkina Faso many, many ruined homes never finished. What a waste. But, from what I saw in Togo and Benin, most everything is eventually finished.

My hosts were rarely forthcoming with information and did not seem like problem solvers. I was constantly having to suggest solutions and pointing out gaps. I am not sure if I was missing culture cues or perhaps a lot was happening in the language that I was not picking up on. I appreciated that the roads seemed significantly safer.
Biggest surprise:  The road structure. There are beautiful, nice main roads, and then dirt. Nothing in between. This seemed mostly true in both countries. Many roads in both countries were not paved but made from interlacing bricks. Black market fuel seems to be very big in both countries. It’s not as obvious in Togo, but it’s done very openly all over Cotonou, and it’s half the price compared to the pump.

Guide to Kinshasa

A guest post by @Cathkemi on a visit to Kinshasa, the capital city of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

Getting There: I used Kenya Airways for Entebbe – Nairobi – Kinshasa; The cost was about $900-1,000 but booked at the last minute.

On arrival: Clearing was very easy at the new efficient airport. But leaving is a hassle. You have to pay $55 worth of taxes to leave, and there are endless checks.

Getting around: Public minibus taxis are popular in the city centre. Luckily I got around with the office car, rides from colleagues, and taxis. Walking around is generally secure depending on where you are. But at night need to be extra careful. You can’t just stroll around, and you need to be extra careful about which taxis you get into.

Staying in touch: I used my Ugandan line and it was very expensive. Both local and international calls are all expensive.

Where to stay: Not sure, as I haven’t stayed in a hotel. Most tourists stay in the up class neighbourhood of Gombe. Or near the UN mission HQ. It has nice restaurants and bars etc. though is expensive. Electricity is not very reliable; our office is in an upper-class neighbourhood but power can cut out several times a week. You need a generator there.

Out & About: The main dishes are fufu with meat, fish, vegetables etc. It’s basic but can be tasty depending on who makes it. Beers are easy to get. Not sure how much but should be around $3-5 and Tembo is the most popular one.

You need some level of French to get around. Not a lot of people speak English. Politics are a major discussion point as the  DRC is in a political crisis, with the President not stepping down after his two terms in office running out.

Shopping & Sightseeing: The nightlife would be the main sightseeing. Lol. Also going to restaurants, hotels etc. by the Congo River. Most people will tell you Goma in the East is the main tourist destination, and many people buy African print material as gifts to take back.

Dollars are the easiest currency to use. They are accepted everywhere – even for phone credit.

Biggest surprise in the country: Houses are very small – housing is cramped my guess is because the city is overcrowded. There is not a lot of outdoor space.

But in richer neighbourhoods, the opulence is astounding. Also, national buildings are extremely big, as are their avenues. Bigger than anything else I’ve seen on the continent. My friends tell me it’s because DRC is a big country so it’s translated into national buildings – which makes sense, and this gives you an idea of how big the country is even if you don’t travel out of Kinshasa.

Also, see a guide to Bukavu, which is on the other end of the vast DRC. 

Guide to Lome, Togo

A guest post about a visit to Lome, the capital of Togo in West Africa. 

Getting There: Took Virgin/Ethiopian, San Francisco to Newark, then a direct flight from Newark to Lome (it then goes on to Addis). The cost was between $950-$1,000.

On arrival: This was an easy experience, that took about 10-15 minutes. I paid for a 7-day Togo tourist visa on arrival. They take your passport and do the visas one by one – you can go collect your luggage then come back for your passport or just wait around if you carried on. It was about $8 to take one of the airport taxis to my destination, but I was staying very close to the airport, not in downtown.

Getting Around: I didn’t do much moving around town, but motorbikes are definitely the most popular form of transport. They were everywhere. Buses are not very plentiful, though they do have a fleet of donated buses that are used as city buses. No mini-buses that I saw. People also walk a lot and there are taxis around, but most people use motorbike taxis.

I didn’t walk around, but Lome is pretty safe. Not sure that it is recommended to walk around at night though. I wasn’t able to use a credit card anywhere I went, but I bet fancier hotels would accept them. Togo uses the CFA Franc, same as other French-speaking countries in West Africa.

Staying in Touch: Local phone calls were reasonably priced, though I only made a few. International calls are very expensive, though. Also, 3G data is available in Lome but quite slow at times because bandwidth is very limited. I bought a local SIM, some airtime and 1 GB of data for $9. Wi-Fi is not very prevalent, but it’s available in some places.

Where to Stay: I was hosted by the organization I was visiting in Togo, so I didn’t spend time in a hotel or b&b. Electricity was pretty reliable. We had a generator where I was saying and it definitely kicked in at least once in the few days I was there.

Eating Out: There is a variety of different foods. Starches like fufu, one made of very fine maize flour, and rice. Also peanut sauce, a cow cheese similar to paneer, lots of spicy/fishy flavors. Common proteins were fish, chicken and guinea hen. A beer was easy to get, but I didn’t go to any bars. French and local languages are spoken, though French is most commonly used and I don’t speak French so I missed a lot of what happened around us.

More business travel tales at  This is Africa.

Oman Air launches Nairobi flights

Product launches seem to follow an established template: bright flashy lights, cakes, and ribbons, and occasionally a tame wild animal, concluded by a rehashed speech from a government functionary. But no wildlife was present as Oman Air officially launched their four times a week flight to Nairobi at the Kempinski Villa Rosa Hotel on 29th March 2017. The inaugural flight to Nairobi had arrived the previous day and it was received by local Kenya airport and Government authorities.

Importantly, however, was the interest generated of Oman as a destination and indeed a hub for travelers to the Middle East and beyond. The airline’s Deputy CEO and VP –Commercial, Abdulrahman Al Busaidy proved not only an eloquent spokesman for his company but a worthy ambassador of The Sultanate of Oman. The interest of those present at the launch was piqued as few had ever thought of Oman as a holiday destination let alone a hub. Most travelers from Kenya have traditionally chosen the Arab carriers that utilize Dubai (Emirates), Doha (Qatar), Abu Dhabi (Etihad) as well as Sharjah (Air Arabia) which all market themselves’ as glitzy shopping and commercial destinations.

Oman Air doesn’t pretend to be a Gulf Major carrier. Currently Emirates, Etihad and Qatar Airways are the undisputed ME3 giants who are now subject to what has been perceived by many to be protectionist measures from the USA and the UK in the guise of the ‘laptop ban’. Al Busaidy attributes such measures to the incapability of carriers from those countries to compete on services available at their fantastic airports and modern fleet and services. While no US carrier serves the Middle East, the gulf carriers operate multiple flights to any of the major hubs in the Middle East.

Oman Air is leveraging the long historical ties between Kenya and Oman which date back to the days when the Portuguese ruled much of the East Coast of Africa. Indeed the Sultan of Oman’s army flushed out the Portuguese from Fort Jesus in the 17th Century and the cultural exchanges and inter-marriage with the local coastal people gave rise to Africa’s most widely spoken language, Kiswahili.

Currently, the airline flies to Dar es Salaam and Zanzibar with Nairobi being the 55th destination of the airline’s growing route development. With a popular in-flight entertainment and free Wi-Fi service on most of its aircraft, Oman Air now has a fleet of 47 aircraft with a mix of Embraer Regional Jets (ERJ) for local and regional flights, Boeing 737s for short haul routes and Airbus A330’s and now the Boeing 787 Dreamliners for the long haul flights.

Indeed two of the Dreamliners were leased from Kenya’s national carrier Kenya Airways (KQ’s) as part of fleet rationalization of KQ’s ongoing Operation Pride restructuring. Both airlines are expected to conclude a code-share agreement by mid-April 2017. Oman Air has also chosen not to align itself with any of the major airline alliances such as Sky Team, Star Alliance or One World but instead code shares flights with Emirates, Ethiopian, Garuda Indonesia, KLM, Royal Jordanian, Saudia, Sri Lankan Airlines, Thai Airways and Turkish Airlines.

Muscat as a base for Oman Air provides the entry point to this traditional conservative Sultanate which has a rich history in preserving its culture (Islamic architecture, all-white buildings, Dhow making, Painting shows, the Muscat Festival and the Khareef Festival held in Salalah in July and August annually) and environment punctuated with over a 100km coastline.

Nairobi will serve as the entry point to popular tourist destinations at the Kenyan Coast and the wildlife marvels of the national parks in the Mara, Tsavo, and Amboseli. Tourism between Kenya and Oman is expected to grow as the airline also envisages Mombasa as a future destination. Coupled with a fairly liberal visa regime (Note that Dubai visa holders get automatic entry into Oman), Oman Air is hoping to prise away traffic from the other carriers especially to the big hubs of the Middle East, India, and China. With introductory fares of $350 to Muscat and $485 to Guangzhou return, this could prove to make for interesting times for travelers to and from Nairobi.

Oman Air indeed epitomizes Oman as a country, its aspirations, culture, history and modernity and its approach to tying itself to both its past and the future as it opens up new destinations. The Nairobi route will be operated by a Boeing 737-800 and the airline’s growth and development strategy plans for 70 aircraft (currently they ar e47) and 75 destinations by the year 2020. The four times a week flight (WY722) )leaves Nairobi at 00:45 (on Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday) and operates non-stop and is designed for an early morning arrival in Muscat that enables connections to other 50 destinations.

Oman’s currency is the Rial and OMR 1 = ~$ 2.6, and OMR 1 is ~Kshs 267.

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.