Where Africa and Technology Collide!

Testing Google Driving Directions in Kenya

Gone are the days where you had to have lived in Nairobi for a couple years before you understood all the backroads and neighborhoods in order to get from one place to another. Kenya has an advantage as the only non-sales office in all of Africa for Google is here. When they create new tools, or customize a feature from the developing world, for Africa they do it here in their own backyard first (and sometimes Uganda).

Google Maps in KenyaA couple weeks ago Google turned on mapping directions for Kenya. Like me, most of the people who know Nairobi were shocked and didn’t believe it. Could this really work? It does, and it works well.

I’ve been testing it out for the last week to see what type of results I get, and I’ve been impressed with the results. Fortunately I have my iPhone with me, and it allows me to do things like challenge Google/Apple to find my current location and then give directions from that location to somewhere in Nairobi that I happen know every backroad, alley and footpath between.


No control for traffic
As omnipotent as Google seems to be, what they’re unable to do is track the vagaries of Nairobi traffic. So, as logical as the directions you get from Google might seem, they are not the best way to go much of the time. While they give accurate directions for new people to Nairobi to follow, they are also the “obvious” route and will cost you hours of sitting in gridlock while you watch the matatu’s clog the road even further.

Alternate route to gigiri

Lack of detail on the maps
Some areas, even large towns like Ongata Rongai aren’t even shown on the map. Below is the failure screen for getting directions from Rongai to Eastleigh. I had to go with Langata instead, as that was the next closest “town” in Google Maps. This pattern holds true for dirt roads and paths that are usable by vehicles, but which don’t show up on the map.

Lack of data - fail on Google map direction in Nairobi

I’ve also seen this in regards to offices and buildings, where they are put on the wrong part of the road, sometimes off by a good half kilometer, as was my father’s office in Upper Hill shown below.

Finding the BTL office in Upper Hill, Nairobi

Final Thoughts

Anyone living or working in Kenya should buy a drink for every intern and Google employee who has done the manual work to get Kenya mapped to the level that it is. It’s an iterative process that only gets better as time goes by and more people work on it.

As Google states:

“This essential tool is by no means Google’s effort alone – we’re enormously grateful to Kenya’s active online cartographers who have helped us build these maps from ground up with the use of Google Map Maker, a tool that allows people to help create a map by adding or editing features such as roads, businesses, parks, schools and more.”

The directions provided by Google in Nairobi (I haven’t tested up-country) are adequate. They’ll get you to and from the locations in Nairobi that you need to go. You’re better off now than you were before, and as someone new to the city you’ll have a lot better luck with Google’s maps and directions than you’ll have with asking someone on the side of the road.


  1. OMG this is sooo exciting! I can’t wait to test it out. I’m moving back to kenya in two weeks and will def be using this to get around. But I won’t have a car right away… I guess it will be too much to hope for the bus and Matatu directions? Hehehe

  2. I had a try-out, too, though I haven’t able to try it in Kenya yet. Funny results on the coast, where someone seems to have forgotten about the Likoni Ferry!


  3. @Richard – that’s hilarious, thanks for sharing it. 🙂

  4. A few thoughts, comparing these services with OSM .. http://brainoff.com/weblog/2009/12/18/1499

  5. Everyone, please go read @Mikel Maron’s blog post above. It’s brilliant and insightful!

  6. Now I can already imagine you fixing a Tupperware box with cables ties on top of your motorbike to work as a mobile iPhone holder 🙂

  7. The tool is extremely handy though sometimes with mistakes. I used it on monday to drive from westlands to Coop Bank Management centre in Karen, only to find part of Bogani rd. has since been permanently closed yet it was the suggested route

  8. When is this level of mapping coming to Accra, Ghana? We need it!!! Every week, I make numerous phone calls about directions and all of them follow the format “opposite x-bank, in front of a y-seller”. Google, help us out! Nairobi, congrats!

  9. Don’t forget that alot of stuff has come out of the community through MapMaker, hence some of the mistakes, it will never be perfect, but its amazing what has been achieved in a year or so.

  10. Navigation in Kenya? This is great even if it’s rudimentary. Its just a first step. Eventually people can find businesses, etc easily! Even though I’m in the US, I have placed a link on my website http://sokonakazi.mobi and I can find directions from Kiserian to Nairobi or even Narok, with ease.

  11. Awesome news, totally awesome

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