Kenya’s Economy on the Rebound after Westgate Attack
Westgate Shopping Mall was a symbol of Kenya’s growing well-heeled middle class: a vast market crammed with flat-screen televisions, imported wines, and chilled cabinets of cheese and meats.
Then, in a burst of grenades and gunfire in September 2013, gunmen prowled food aisles and executed at least 67 people in cold blood, making the Nairobi mall’s Nakumatt supermarket the epicenter of a brutal massacre.
The attack, claimed by Somalia’s al-Qaida-linked al-Shabaab, ushered in a tough year for Kenya’s economy. But there are signs that the economy is rebounding.
“Three days after the terrorist attack, we had no Nakumatt there; we had lost everything,” said Atul Shah, managing director of Nakumatt Holdings, East Africa’s biggest retail chain by outlet numbers. Its Westgate outlet had been its flagship branch. Stock losses were estimated at $6.7 million.
“Business was slow for a couple of months,” Shah said. “Everybody avoided shopping malls or public places.” He said the company has since started to recover, opening new stores.
“More than anything, the Westgate attack struck at the ‘Africa-rising/emerging middle class’ narrative — the cheerleaders of the economy,” said Aly-Khan Satchu, a financial analyst in Nairobi. “These folks have moved from a very offensive game to one which is more defensive.”
Subsequent attacks, especially killings in the coastal region, have badly dented Kenya’s tourist industry — a key foreign currency earner and huge employer.
“The negative spillover has been felt most intensely in coastal tourism, which is on its knees, and it’s unlikely to bounce back meaningfully in the next 12 months,” Satchu said in September 2014.
The tourist board insists that visitor arrivals dipped by less than 5 percent in the first four months of 2014, but hotels and tourism operators reported a slump. “We basically became a closed shop,” Mohammed Hersi, chairman of Kenya’s Coast Tourist Association, said. “We have had an almost 40 percent drop.”
But Kenya has bounced back before, including after al-Qaida’s bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi in 1998, as well as postelection violence in 2007. Shares in the operator of Kenya’s stock market, Nairobi Securities Exchange, were rapidly snapped up when they debuted in September 2014.
“Kenya’s economy has exhibited outstanding resilience post-Westgate,” Satchu said in September 2014. “The Nairobi All-Share Index has rallied more than 30 percent since Westgate, and that is a major signal.”
A year after the al-Shabaab attack, Westgate remained closed. Bullet holes still were visible on the boarded-up mall. Large parts collapsed during the siege as a result of a huge explosion and fire. Ornamental plants appeared to have grown wild around the terrace cafes where Kenyans and foreigners once mingled over expensive coffees and wine.
Shah says reconstruction is ongoing. He remains hopeful for Kenya. “We will recover one day, and pray something like this will never happen again.”