Building Trust and Relationship in Kenya
Trusting relationships form the prerequisite for any successful business. However, how to build trust in a foreign country is always challenging and very often a road full of ups and downs. In this article, you will get the basic, often unwritten, rules that apply in Kenya. The author of the article is a development sociologist and a consultant on intercultural management, with a specialization on Africa. She has lived and worked on the African continent for ten years and, living in the Netherlands today, she visits the continent regularly, both for business as well as for private affairs.
The 5 most important things to know about doing business in Kenya (if you only read one section this is what you should read)
Take your time. Building trusting relationships takes more time in Kenya than it usually does on the European continent.
Always start with the person first (how is he/she doing) before you jump to business.
Maintain a healthy dose of caution, too much trust is frowned upon.
Take concerns seriously, even if they seem off-topic.
Understand that a ‘yes’ is a positive intention being expressed, a step towards you, but not necessarily an assurance that it can be executed the way you may expect.
Trust is, on one hand, a concept which is known throughout the world and which is very important for human kind in order to move ahead in the uncertain environments in which we find ourselves. Yet, on the other hand, when people are asked to describe trust, many different concepts can be shared: belief, security, certainty, reliability, credibility, expectation, faith and prediction are all words that can be used in different situations. It is a complicated concept and the building of trust will be done differently in different cultures. Also remember that every citizen in Kenya is different and in this article we describe the average Kenyan, the traits which are generally preferred, but it’s important to always keep an open mind.
As it is true everywhere in the world, the main vehicle for building trust is by building relationships. This is even more true in the case in a collectivist society like Kenya. The average Kenyan would want to get to know you, as a business person, but also as a human being, before he or she is willing to do business with you.
Generally speaking, people build trust with others based on three components:
Intentions - what is his/her character, agenda and motivation?
Capability - does he/she have the resources for this intended relationship (time, finances, knowledge)?
Reputation - is the social evaluation and image projected positive?
Unconsciously these three components are being checked continuously while we are building trust with another person. Therefore, it takes time before a trusting relationship is established. In Kenya, one would need to share time with others, eat and drink together, and have conversations about many other topics besides business before trust can start to be established.
At the same time, establishing a personal relationship does not imply that you need to pour your heart out and discuss your personal struggles in life with the other person. A personal relationship, in this case, does not imply a friendship. Such conversations would be interpreted as a demand for help and this could put your counterpart off, rather than smooth the way forward. It may also raise doubts about your capability or even your reputation. Of course, there is a wide space between a strictly business relationship and a friendship, and it is within this space that the people in Kenya would like to get to know you.
In the development of relationships in Kenya, for a long time, attitude will be much more important than content. One important thing people will look for is if you are able to handle difficult topics of conversation with care and respect for other people (and, especially, for the elderly and/or power holders). The language used and the way things are expressed is of great importance and Kenyans will be put off by a strong opinion, a sharp tone, rough talk, cynicism or anger. How do you talk about the world, your own country of origin, about Kenya, other business people or the surrounding community? Having the ability to move around thorny subjects and to show respect to the powers holders in play will assure your interlocuteur that you will not easily spoil your own and, therefore, also their reputation.
Another important criterion will be: who are you connected to? People want to know whether you have connections in higher echelons, whether business or political. And, over the course of time, they will be interested to hear something about your personal life as well: are you married, do you have children, etc.? You don’t need to volunteer this information but, in case it comes up in conversation, it’s always good to have one or two pictures of your loved ones on your phone.
Since connections are of utmost importance in this collectivist society, and as it has been described in this article ‘Finding business partners in Kenya,’ the best way to start new relationships is by introduction. The trust that your introducer has will, to an extent, be transferred to you. The same is true if you’re able to tell one or two stories about some important people you’ve worked with or are connected to. Bringing people along to get-togethers may also support the trust building process. Generally speaking, being part of a network or a community is an important tool for measuring reduced risks. In a country where the rule of law cannot always be taken for granted, having a network means both capability as well as reputation.
A third criterion we’d like to mention is that people may want to know whether you take their challenges seriously. Here we come into the field of intentions: do you honestly have the intention to work with them, even if other issues pop up? Will you be able to accept that deadlines shift (or better yet, did you silently take this into account) and can you listen to the reasons that are given? It is possible that in all these conversations and get-togethers other issues may come up and they may seem off topic, like they don’t have a connection with the business relationship you’re trying to establish. However, we highly recommend paying close attention to these issues and requests. In case you do not immediately have an answer to a concern that is put forward, it’s very acceptable to say you’ll think about it and take your time to decide for yourself what it is that you’d be able and willing to offer. In case you’re able to help out on non-business related issues, it will send out a strong message that you take the relationship seriously and that they can rely on you.
While the relationship is being built, people in Kenya will also like to see that you are able to show your worth. In this masculine society, with value placed on achievement, it is important to be assertive (which is not to be confused with rudeness) and display wealth and other capabilities. Mention titles and connections. In addition, there are moments that assertive and decisive action or voice are acceptable and even called for, but only if you’re in a position to do so, in terms of power and age.
Finally, people will also just want to know whether you are good company, whether you can share a beer and a laugh, and whether you’re willing to involve yourself genuinely in the conversation and in the new relationship. To people from individualist countries this can create feelings of fatigue, even exhaustion, but it helps to consider this time and energy spent as part of the work that needs to be done. It is wise to take time, to be patient, make yourself available and show yourself to be present.
One of the biggest challenges for maintaining trusting relationships between people from different countries is the difference between what is said and what is done. Around the world, people do not always mean or do what they say. If they do this with a positive intention, it is called a ’white lie’ in English: people do not want to upset somebody and therefore they tell a lady that her dress really looks nice, although they might have a different opinion.
In collectivist societies, these so-called white lies can go further than is often the case in individualist European countries. If one is not aware of this, it can open a box of negative emotions. On one end, a Kenyan may look at a person from Europe, who believes somebody at first sight, as naïve. This may cause the person to lose respect in the eyes of the Kenyan. At the same time, if a person from Europe finds out that reality is actually a bit different than the way it was depicted earlier, the European might have feelings of betrayal or deceit. This disconnect between realities can lead to real trust issues.
Two things are very important to keep in mind. Firstly, the perception of the right boundary between a white lie and an outright lie shifts in individualist and collectivist cultures. This is because collectivist cultures put a much higher value on the harmony of the group and the maintenance of the relationship. Therefore, people do not like to express unpleasant truths and the word ‘no’ is less frequently used than the word ‘yes.’ Collectivists actively say yes to the relationship; even if they may not necessarily be able to do a certain thing, they express the intention that they would like to do it. It may sound odd to people from individualist countries, but Kenyans actually honour you by saying ‘yes’ to a proposal, even if they won’t be able to execute it (or execute it fully).
Secondly, keep in mind that Kenya is relatively less wealthy than other countries in the world and there is a saying that ‘a poor man has many issues behind his back.’ There are always bills to be paid and family members to take care of. In addition, in Kenya, there is very limited insurance and life is very unpredictable. This means that people cannot always foresee the responsibilities they have tomorrow or next week. In Dutch we have the expression that ‘a cat in a tight corner makes peculiar leaps’. In the unpredictable environment of Kenya, together with the burden of the responsibility of a large family, people may find themselves in a tight corner and unable to honour other commitments. Remember, in this respect, that you are and will always remain part of the ‘out-group’ and people in collectivist cultures will need to take care of their in-group first. If you are doing business in Kenya, be aware that this is a reality you will face.
Among themselves, Kenyans are very aware of these circumstances and manners. They read between the lines and accept it when they see that a spoken ‘yes’ actually means a ‘no’. They read the body language, listen to the tone of voice, the silences, and they pay close attention to circumstances that may be expressed during other parts of the conversation. Kenyans will not confront the yes-sayer with this gut feeling, they will just draw their own conclusions and/or look for problems that they might be able to take care of to make the “yes” into a real yes. To do this, they will move slowly and cautiously, work on building the relationship one step at a time, and will often check, either with other people involved or the person at hand, how things are going. They can also look for an explanation afterwards on why things were done differently than agreed earlier, (although, this should be done quite lightly, without getting upset.
In case you’re able to make these traits your own and you have your paperwork in order, you will be able to build worthwhile, long lasting and trusting relationships, reap the fruits, and make use of the business opportunities in Kenya.
Short case study
A European agricultural trade company in Kenya is making changes to its supply chain. They are reorganizing their support and working methods with the farmers’ associations. They’ve been able to attract Kenyan talent and one of them is a gentleman who has substantial experience in the agricultural sector. He is well connected to many farmers' associations, umbrella organisations and to the agricultural state institutions. He is very respected in the sector.
This gentleman is integrated into one of the teams of the trade company with a team leader who is a younger European man. Their relationship starts off just fine and both of them are excited to embark on the change process.
The workload is quite intense and over the course of the first one to one-and-a-half years, there are a few moments when the pressure has risen to a peak. To improve the situation, the European team leader thinks he needs to be clearer and more decisive in his communication with his team. However, some of his stress also seeps through in his voice. After those instances, the team recovers and both the serious conversations about the work as well as the light joking relationships continue. Therefore, for the team leader, everything seems to be fine and the change process is evolving.
To the Kenyan gentleman, however, those moments of stress had their impact. To him, the way the team leader has been communicating is insulting and he has the feeling that his point of view has not been taken seriously. He no longer trusts the team leader to interact with the most important people within his network and almost unconsciously he starts to shield his network from contact. He also thinks that some parts of the new strategy will not work in the Kenyan context, but he has decided not to mention this to his team leader. So while everybody on the team continues to roll out the new way of working, the team misses out on important information and is not able to make full use of the resources in their midst.
References & Interesting Links
African Studies Centre’s Country Portal: http://countryportal.ascleiden.nl/kenya
Finuras, P. O Dilema da Confiança. Lisboa: Edições Sílabo, 2013.
Finuras, P. O Fator Confiança: a ciência para criar pessoas, líderes e organizações de alta confiança. Lisbon: Edições Sílabo, 2017.
Finuras, P. (2019). Culture Differences and Trust. Journal of Intercultural Management and Ethics, Issue 4, 2019 pp.5-12
Hofstede, G., Hofstede, G.J., Minkov, M. Cultures and organizations: Software of the mind. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2010
iGuide Kenya: https://www.theiguides.org/public-docs/guides/kenya