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Obama Embarks On First Trip To Kenya As President


President Obama arrived in Kenya today. This is his fourth and said to be his last presidential trip to Africa. Small businesses in Nairobi are rushing to cash in on his visit. Those selling Obama T-shirts and posters are doing a brisk business. As NPR's Gregory Warner reports, what many entrepreneurs want to hear are three simple words.

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: Those three words - direct international flight.

NICHOLAS GICHENE: We need a direct flight from Kenya to the States.

WARNER: But why direct flights? What does that mean to you guys?

GICHENE: It meant we have access to the states. It's like our next-door neighbor. We can just walk in.

WARNER: Twenty-seven-year-old tech entrepreneur Nicholas Gichene points out that the airport in Lagos, Nigeria, has that status. So does the one in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

So it's about respect.

GICHENE: It's about respect, yes.


WARNER: Now, I was having this conversation with Gichene at one of the satellite events around the president's visit. Each of those bursts of applause were from a pitch panel hosted by Steve Case of AOL - Kenyan tech founders competing for seed money from the Case Foundation. The event is in keeping with a key message of the president's trip about enabling relationships between Western capital and African entrepreneurs.

GICHENE: You see, when the West starts seeing that there is something going on in Africa, people will start getting interested. And so it's not necessarily that Obama will do something, but it's the influence it creates.

WARNER: To Gichene, it would be an obvious improvement of the business relationship to allow a direct nonstop flight, just as direct flights to China allowed manufacturing to take off there. When Obama was elected, it was one of the first things that the Kenyan government requested from the White House, but the decision is not up to the White House. The FAA designates airports at that level of security. The technical term for these airports is CAT1, or sometimes port of last departure. I called up Eric Kiraithe, the head of security at Nairobi's main airport, Jomo Kenyatta.

ERIC KIRAITHE: Good morning to you.

WARNER: He says they're working closely with the TSA, and security has improved. The FAA does these public audits of airports, and a score of 80 is the minimum for a CAT1. According to public records, Nairobi's airport scored a 78, up from 66 two years before. But Kiraithe says that getting those last two points isn't just about putting in more equipment or training more screeners.

KIRAITHE: It is also a function of the operating environment.

WARNER: The operating environment - what makes a CAT1 airport in New York or Houston or Hong Kong, he says, is different than in Nairobi. In other words, it's not just about what's happening in the airport, but around it. And what's happening around Nairobi's airport doesn't look good - not just the general insecurity in Kenya, but the corruption that leads to more insecurity. And one example is Kimaithe's boss, David Kimaiyo. He was inspector general of police who oversaw Kenya's failed response to a terrorist attack on a Nairobi shopping mall in 2013. He was dismissed for his performance and then reshuffled to become the chairman of the airport authority.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Let's have the loudest round of applause of the day for all eight companies.


WARNER: Back at the pitch panel, another tech entrepreneur, Christopher Omar, tells me what he wishes that Obama would say this weekend to the Kenyan government.

CHRISTOPHER OMAR: The corruption is getting bigger. Guys are reshuffled, not even fired or persecuted.

WARNER: It seems like this is the biggest challenge of Obama's visit, is to be friends more with Kenya without buddying up to the current Kenyan government.

OMAR: He shouldn't even. He should tell them directly - you guys, you need to do something. Kenyans are expecting more from you.

WARNER: He wants President Obama to say, in a way that Kenyans hear, that direct flights aren't something that an American president can grant. It's up to the Kenyan government to bring that home. Gregory Warner, NPR News, Nairobi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Gregory Warner is the host of NPR's Rough Translation, a podcast about how things we're talking about in the United States are being talked about in some other part of the world. Whether interviewing a Ukrainian debunker of Russian fake news, a Japanese apology broker navigating different cultural meanings of the word "sorry," or a German dating coach helping a Syrian refugee find love, Warner's storytelling approach takes us out of our echo chambers and leads us to question the way we talk about the world. Rough Translation has received the Lowell Thomas Award from the Overseas Press Club and a Scripps Howard Award.