Living the American dream: The thriving Washington State business of 25, 000 Kenyans running Sh700bn empire

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Like the ancient Jews who sojourned in Egypt to look for food and turned around their fortunes there, Kenyans are prospering in Washington State.

Some come to study and find residency then settle here. Others just come to look for employment, through the Green Card and establish themselves here. Like the old Arabian fable of the camel who poked his nose into a tent and was allowed to seek warmth only to refuse to leave, Kenyans have thrown their gauntlet into the commercial ring of Washington State. They have a commanding presence, where some cities like Federal Way and Tacoma are slowly but surely becoming little Kiambus.

They are into health care training institutions and providers, logistics, local transport, long haul trucking, Uba/Lyft taxis, entertainment, hospitality, real estate. Other sectors that are teeming with Kenyans are beauty salons, eateries, technical services like plumbing and electrical work, among others.

After many failed appointments, I finally caught up with John Kimani at the Umoja Presbyterian Church in West Gate, Tacoma, where consulate officials from Los Angeles and Washington DC were handling passport and identity cards applications and related services. He was able to share information about Kenyan businesses, without going into details.

“Home care providers is the sector where Kenyans are doing well. This is where most Kenyan businessmen and women here have invested in,” Kimani, who came to the US as a student in 1980s, said. He is the chairman of North West Kenyan Community Association, through which they organise consulate services for Kenyan residents here. Every year, they host Consulate officials to ease the stress of applying for these important documents. Kimani also happens to be the first Kenyan to set up an Adult Family Home in Washington State.

“I set up the first AFH in Tacoma/Lakewood in 1996. I am happy that many Kenyans are providing good services to senior residents here,” he said. While he retains his first AFH, he opened more homes after that.

Pauline Eva Owuor of Seattle Home Aide Trainers handing over Certificates to trainees at her college in Federal Way, Washington.

Photo credit: Pool

He estimates that between 500 and 600 Adult Family providers are Kenyans. Some of them own between five and seven homes, accommodating between five and eight residents. Adult Family Homes are a community-based residential setting with 24-hour care and services for the elderly and vulnerable. According to official records, there are over 4,700 adult-family homes across Washington State. Each licensed and operated home can serve between two and eight residents.

An average AFH caregiver daily pay in Washington State is approximately $328, according to statistics from Washington State Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS). WA Medicaid pays for services and supports to help frail seniors to continue living at home or at an AFH, also called adult foster care, or in an assisted living facility. When they choose to live in their homes, care givers take care of them there.

As of April 2024, the average hourly pay for a Family Caregiver in Washington is $18.16, although some pay up to $25, depending on experience and qualifications. This is the biggest employer for African immigrants in Washington State.

Kenyan-run businesses

With 25,000 Kenyans here, remittances going to Kenya are in their millions of shillings. Kenyan-run businesses in Washington State are valued at about $5 billion (Sh700 billion).

To qualify to own an adult family home, a certain threshold must be met. The initial investment is to own a home, which can be remodelled to meet the standards set by the state. The cost of buying homes also depends of locations, which can range from $350,000, $450,000, $550,000 or up to $1 million. Finance institutions also look at one’s credit score, and applicants’ income for the previous three years. It is a rigorous process that can be frustrating as it can be time-consuming. But the efficiency that accompany the process and the Return on Investment are worth the waiting.

“This area employs majority of our people. Kenyan immigrants are here in their thousands and are absorbed in family homes where they get their first opening in this country,” Kimani said. “I am happy that they are doing well here and even sending home a lot of money,” he said.

Margaret Karimi and Rahab Njoroge are among the prominent AFH owners in Tacoma, with more than three homes. They are, however, reluctant to divulge too much detail about their operations. There are many others in Auburn, Kent and Spanaway.

Kenyans are the leading African investors in these homes, and a few Ethiopians.

To ensure a seamless supply of work force into these hundreds of family homes, Kenyans have invested in training institutions which churn out care givers in their hundreds every month.

Professor (Bishop) Gachuhi Njenga (Home Aide Training Centre LLC) and Pauline Eva Owuor (Seattle Home Aide Trainers), both in Federal Way, have trained thousands in their training schools. There are also Two Rivers Care Training LLC in Auburn, owned by Hildah Kinyua, Millicent Zinga in Kent, Faith Beaver in Lakewood and Brilliant Training of Esther Ng’ang’a in Tacoma.

Pauline Eva Owuor

Pauline Eva Owuor, a Kenyan entrepreneur in Seattle, Washington.

Photo credit: Pool

“I have trained up to 1000 caregivers since we opened our school in 2022,” says Ms Owuor, who confirms that they focus on African immigrants “because we understand their unique needs and respond appropriately”.

“We struggled and fought hard to be accepted in the community of home aide trainers, but eventually, with God’s grace, we are humbled by the response from clients and students,” said Ms Owuor, a trained English/Kiswahili teacher but ended up in sociology and marketing. Her aim is to train medical technicians and to set up a graduate nursing school to provide accelerated programs in nursing.

Champions Real Estate, with offices in Federal Way, Edmonds and Everett, is owned by a Kenyan lady, Grace Wamwere, who advertises her company as selling affordable houses.

Hostel facilities

Peter Maina of Deadsilva is the face of logistics in Washington State, but Lincoln Njoroge of Linktec, who is based in Kansas but with a presence in Washington, and Titan are also very active. “We transport cargo to Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania weekly by air and twice a month by sea,” Maina said.

Experts Driving School is the latest kid on the block. It joins Prof Gachuhi Njenga group of companies and fits in his one-stop-shop idea of providing caregiving training, hostel facilities, transportation, tours and travel, care rentals, job leads, notary public and immigration services which are all done under his roof in Federal Way.

Bishop Njenga also runs Diaspora Tours and Travels which specialises in tours to historic sites, holiday camps and museums in USA, Israel, Kenya and Botswana, among others.

Addressing Kenyans during the opening of the driving school on March 30, Consul-General of the Kenyan Consulate in Los Angeles, California, Amb Thomas Kwaka Omolo, urged Kenyans to invest more while transferring skills and technology and remitting resources back home.

“One of the most important things for a country is to encourage and secure investment opportunities anywhere and it is our responsibility as a government to mobilise Kenyans to support those businesses,” Kwaka, popularly known as Big Ted, told The Weekly Review on the sidelines of the function.

“We are happy with Kenyans in Washington for their aggressiveness. In Kent alone are some 12,750 Kenyans. This makes for a good business and employment opportunities for our people, which we do support,” he said.

Blessed Driving School in Federal Way is also owned by a Kenyan. “Kenyans are very hardworking and are venturing in businesses of all kinds,” Prof Njenga said.

If you crave Kenyan cuisine, Rafiki restaurant in Kent, Lims in Federal Way or Safari Njema in Seattle are just a click away. They are available in plenty e.g. mrenda, tilapia, managu, Sukuma wiki, chapati, mandazi, matumbo and others. Kenyans frequent these joins to satisfy their cravings, meet fellow Kenyans or simply to offer culinary solidarity. Others, especially the young and restless, come to flaunt their newly acquired vehicles and haute couture.

Rumba Notes in downtown Seattle is where revellers head to at the weekend to unwind as they enjoy their drinks and listen to African rhumba and other Afrocentric genres of music. Owned by Frank Ulwenya, a former Earthquake band member at what used to be known as Excelsior Hotel at the junction of Kenyatta Avenue and Koinange Street, Rumba Notes has provided a platform for major African artists like Kanda Bongoman, Koffi Olomide, the late Tabu Ley, Loketo Group and others.

Luo rhumba crooner, Prezda Amimo Bandason, is a frequent performer there. Nonini, Khaligragh Jones, Msaimo wa Njeri, King Kaka are among Kenyans who have performed there.

Fliers are all over on Kenyan WhatsApp groups advertising the best hairdresser, or eatery around. Most orders are placed online for food to be dropped to buyers’ homes.

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