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Why the World needs more of what Kenya has

There have been many blogs in recent years, on the growth of business in Kenya. Although this blog touches on that, it is more of a personal testimony of my experiences with Kenya and, hopefully, an encouragement to other businesses to consider what Kenya could offer them.

I first visited Kenya five years ago and I think it is fair to say that the trip changed my life. However, not at all in that contemporary cliché of the have-it-all ‘westerner’ coming face-to-face with real poverty and subsequently seeing their material world completely differently. There is a great deal of desperate material poverty in many parts of Kenya and I am not oblivious to that, but the one thing that really affected me was the overcoming, innovative spirit of the Kenyans I met.

Of course it would be wrong to over-generalise and declare all Kenyans inherently entrepreneurial. As with any generalisation, there are some people that fit the description and plenty who don’t. However, my observation is that this entrepreneurial spirit is very much a national characteristic and bodes well for the future of Kenya, and Africa more generally.

There are some great success stories which support my observations. M-Pesa, Kenya’s home-grown mobile phone-based money transfer service is a great example of a world-changing success story. Nearly 20 million Kenyans now use M-Pesa to transfer money, using mobile-phones (which are readily accessible) rather than use more traditional banking methods (which are not so accessible to many). In particular, over 70% of Kenyans who earn less than $1.25 a day use M-Pesa. The service has revolutionised economic transactions in Kenya and across the world as others have caught on to the idea.

There are many other similar examples of Kenyan businesses solving particular Kenyan problems, and impacting the wider world as a result. The Kenyan tech scene is particularly thriving, as highlighted by Barack Obama when he hosted the Global Entrepreneurship Summit in Nairobi in July 2015.

Young people like you are harnessing technology to change the way Africa is doing business … and that creates incredible opportunities for Africans and for the world. It means more growth and trade that creates jobs in all our countries. It’s good for all of us. This continent needs to be a future hub of global growth, not just African growth

www.ges2015.org

When I first visited Kenya in 2010, it wasn’t the Nairobi tech scene that I observed however, it was the more general innovation by everyday Kenyans. Of course, there is a truth in the ‘necessity is the mother of invention’ adage. Without the abundance of support services that indulge us in the UK, for many Kenyans setting up a small business to earn a living is a no-brainer. Add to that a strong sense of national pride and the ‘manyana’ nothing-is-too-much-trouble attitude, and it seems that Kenyans have developed a powerful can-do approach to life, whether that is selling oddments at the corner of the street or setting up a crowdsourcing platform to keep elections safe (www.Ushahidi.com).

What is really great is that this entrepreneurial spirit is being applied in many socially beneficial ways too. My first trip to Kenya was part of an organised charity trip to help paint a home for disabled children. The home had been set up and run since the seventies by the local community in which it was situated. Although they were very appreciative of our work, it was very clear they were doing a great job without our help. They were providing housing, food and much needed access to schooling to empower disabled children, who otherwise would have little opportunity to gain an education. This was partly subsidised by letting out flats on their site and subsequently they have gone on to build more flats to increase that income. Given time, the home could be totally self-sufficient.

Before that first trip, I don’t think that I was totally naïve in thinking that Africa was all about the images of Ethiopian famines etc displayed on British appeal shows over the years, but it certainly hadn’t occurred to me that Kenyans were so much more solution-oriented than I had considered. I think my expectations of the trip were that it would be good for the kids (we took 3 of our children with us) to get a better appreciation of the World. Hopefully, that was true, but it had a far greater impact on me and my wife in all kinds of ways.

On our return to the UK, we began to reassess our approach to helping those in need. Up to that point, I would like to think we were reasonably generous with our time and money, and were generally looking to give something back to society, but the Kenya experience made us refocus on what we came to understand as “asset-based community development”. Rather than look at the needs per se, look at what you have and how that can be best used. Six months later we were back in Kenya, but this time with a physiotherapist friend, spending time playing and encouraging the disabled kids (rather than making a ham-fisted attempt to decorate the home).

We also sat down with the Home’s management team and discussed ways we could work with them, to really help the kids. One of the outcomes of that was helping to raise seed money to build more flats to let out. As simple as it sounds, I started a tuckshop back home at the office of one of my large corporate clients. They bought chocolate bars and cans of pop, with the profits going to the Home. The Home, encouraged by this extra income, raised funds locally and were able to build more flats. It has been exciting to see how this and other projects have developed over the last five years.

However, the trip has resulted in far more change back home too. At that point, my wife and I had been running a successful consultancy, which enabled us to have a nice lifestyle and to do some ‘good’ in the world (eg go on charity trips to Kenya). My ambition, which was quite realistic, was to retire by the rime I was 50 and then may be study for a PhD and lecture a bit, or something like that. The Kenya trip inspired me to rethink my low ambitions.

Personally, I realised that my Christian faith had become much more of an afterthought, than the driving force in my life it had once been. I did profess to be a follower of Jesus, but somehow my daily life had moved into a comfortable ‘Churchianity’ that I’d always hated. Kenya challenged me to rethink of what value it is to profess something if there is no corresponding action. This spiritual ‘renewal’ re-energised me and provided a new ambition. Before the year was out, I had started a part-time PhD and begun the transformation of our (reasonably socially responsible) consultancy business into a fully-fledged values-led training business (a route we had been meandering down to that point, but were then catapulted along).

Along the way, I was helped by other influences, notably Steve Chalke of the Oasis charity (OasisUK.org). Steve introduced me to the concept of ‘social entrepreneurialism’. This was a great eye-opener for me, because, although I felt some propensity to building businesses, I’d never really been that interested in making lots of money (which tended to limit my ambition somewhat!). Thinking about how to build socially beneficial, sustainable businesses, without worrying too much about profits was very appealing to me, and, amongst other things, led to starting a not-for-profit coworking space this year.

In regards to developing the training business, our ambitions have sky-rocketed (and my desire to retire at 50 has become less appealing – and less possible!). As I write this blog, I’m back in Nairobi for a few weeks to talk to folks here who are interested in partnering with us to develop training programmes in Kenya, and across sub-Saharan Africa. This looks very promising, but even if we do not achieve all our dreams, the more time I spend in this country, the more inspired I feel to emulate the entrepreneurs here who have worked hard to make their dreams a reality.

 

(featured image of GES2015 courtesy of voanews.com)