If you come to Kenya and conduct business in a very direct manner, you may find that it does not work well with the locals. Instead, try to learn about indirect communication before arriving and practice using this technique when interacting with Kenyans.
Background: The Kenyan society is of a collectivistic nature, in which harmony and relationships between people are of utmost importance. (Hofstede, Hofstede & Minkov, 2010). Edward T. Hall refers to it as a culture with ‘high-context communication’, in which people use more context, surrounding facts and descriptions in explaining a certain situation (Hall, 1976).
In order to retain employees and talent, make sure to act like a ‘benevolent father’ (or mother). If you are the manager, you can be a demanding and strict boss on the one hand, yet it is wise to be flexible and to make sure you’re there for your employees at times needed.
Background: Employees usually not only need to take care of their own (nuclear) family, but of the extended family as well (school fees; hospital bills etc.). So as it is everywhere, salary is important. Besides this, in a volatile environment without much insurance, the boss often acts as a patron in times of misfortune and takes the personal situation of an employee into account.
When in Kenya, make sure to use the connections you have to highlight your position in this collectivist and rather masculine society. Name dropping is accepted and you can also take advantage of having someone from high social status to introduce you, this way you will appear more credible to your potential business partners.
Background: Kenyan society is relatively more results oriented, tougher and more competitive, if compared to some other African countries. Therefore, it is acceptable to show one’s worth and even exaggerate it a little bit. Status symbols, like titles (Mr., Dr., etc.), gadgets and cars are important symbols of who you are and your achievements in life (Hofstede, Hofstede and Minkov, 2010).
In Kenya, trust is built slowly, overtime and in small steps. By putting all your cards on the table, you may be setting yourself up to be taken advantage of. Make sure to seek information about your business partner (albeit indirectly); to invest into the personal relationship; and to build a larger network around your business partners. On top of that, companies make sure that the Letters of Credit are in order and that the bills are paid in advance.
Background: People do not respect trust being given away too easily. They regard it as an opportunity that cannot be missed. After all, if they make use of a one-time opportunity, it will enhance the well-being of their families.
Important decisions are usually made outside the meeting by a person of power. If you are a manager and would like others to add input, it’s a good idea to ask for it before the meeting and make up your mind before the meeting starts. In case you’re an employee, you may try to catch your boss and make a point. The meeting is used as a platform to explain the way forward, to answer questions and to give instructions. It is also the moment for people to get to know each other and build their relationship while negotiating.
Background: The reason behind this working procedure lies in the fact that we’re talking about a more hierarchical culture where people will not always feel comfortable to contradict the manager in front of other members of the team. This is often regarded as disrespectful.
Subordinates may be reluctant to take the initiative to talk to a superior without the specific request for feedback. Rather, the superior is advised to go and talk to the subordinates to seek important information. In this culture, bottom up information flow needs continuous attention from management.
Background: In a hierarchical society like Kenya, the open door policy often does not work. Although the boss is seen as a supportive “parent figure”, subordinates feel that the boss has more important things to do and therefore avoid bothering them with issues or concerns.
In Kenya, it is important to seek information about your potential business partners and subordinates. Get to know the different tribes in Kenya and ask your partners and employees about their village in order to get to know their background. Tensions or contradicting interests are not always openly discussed but you should always keep tribal divisions in mind when negotiating. Consider selecting one or two reliable informants and ask for their advice. Do try to respect the diversity as you can (avoid blaming, make sure everybody is heard, focus on output etc.).
Background: Ethnicity is an important factor in the life of Kenyan. People feel strongly connected to and responsible for their own in-group. Information usually flows fast internally and one may protect the interests of a group member better than of somebody from a different background. Thus, seeking information about others is common and it is a form of risk mitigation within a collectivist, network oriented society.
In case you’re working in the ICT sector, you may want to explore innovative opportunities. IT applications can for instance be made in various sectors such as electricity and water supplies, education, medical and healthcare, financial services, cyber security etc.
Background: From 2007 through 2010, a combination of circumstance and visionary individuals inspiring to found the country’s Silicon Savannah was laid down. Since then, there has been a genuine government commitment to ICT, formulating supportive and stimulating policies. Kenya is now a recognized IT hub, home to more than 200 start-ups as well as large tech firms like IBM, Facebook, Intel and Microsoft.
Kenya’s business community is vibrant, but “it lacks business planning and coordination between firms and business ideas to maximize profits and increase social utility” (Guznajeva, Kenya Innovation Opportunities; article on this platform). It is advisable to take small steps into the future and to remain flexible and resilient.
Background: Most Kenyans have more of a tendency to live in the present rather than planning for a far-away future. One needs to consider this when starting an enterprise in Kenya. Also, there will always be surprises and planning is less useful. The expression ‘time is money’ does not necessarily apply in Kenya, as it does in many western countries. Although this way of doing business can be a challenge for foreign partners, Kenyans are proud of their ability to improvise and to be resilient.
This might be an interesting market to explore. Agriculture has always been and still is the backbone of the Kenyan economy. Be aware that young people would want to have services in rural areas, like electricity and water resources. Therefore, it may be important to select areas where these investments are being made.
Background: 61% of the population of Kenya works in the agricultural sector and there is a lot of room for technological development and innovation. Young people are interested in learning how to adapt to this sector with new technologies (Runde et al, CSIS, 2017).
Technological leapfrogging could be possible in other ICT applications as well, as internet connectivity has improved considerably with the completion of the undersea fiber optic cable (2010), driving mobile phone penetration. However, Kenya might be suffering from the law of the handicap of the head start, since other tech hubs are progressing rapidly in Sub Saharan Africa as well.
Background: In 2007, Kenyan telecom company Safaricom launched its M-PESA mobile money service to a market lacking retail banking infrastructure yet abundant in mobile phone users. The product converted even the most basic cell phones into roaming bank accounts and money-transfer devices. Within two years M-PESA was winning international tech awards after gaining nearly six million customers and transferring billions annually. (Bright, Jake & Hruby, Aubrey, 2015)