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5 things you should know before doing business in Kenya

1. Business is more than just work

Businesses pack up to catch a glimpse of president Uhuru Kenyatta
Businesses pack up to catch a glimpse of president Uhuru Kenyatta

In the UK, we tend to think of business as a hard-nosed, tough-talking, no-nonsense world, where it’s every man and woman for themselves. It couldn’t be more different in Kenya. Transaction-driven but relationship-led, Kenya’s entrepreneurs most definitely have lives outside of their work.

It was a little surprising at first when our 20-year-old butcher disappeared from a meeting to go home for lunch with his brother, or when my dairy-farming mum-of-two dropped me at her home on the way to the office to meet her family. But it was a great reflection of how family-led Kenyan entrepreneurs are in their work, and how those human connections are at the core of every part of how they do business.

2. A ‘relaxed’ attitude towards time

volunteers talking before meeting
Balloon Ventures ICS volunteers Abel and Gladys chat before a meeting

To say the least. ‘Kenyan time’, as it’s affectionately known among volunteers, works on an entirely different system to back home. It’s a system where nothing happens at the time it’s meant to. Arrange a meeting for 12pm? You can probably expect things to begin about two.

It’s a little frustrating at first – and this is coming from someone who is religiously late to everything. But it’s hard not to embrace this more relaxed way of doing work. As my Kenyan counterpart commented when he saw me rushing, 15 minutes late, to a meeting in the first week, “Why are you running? You’re early!” Just don’t expect people to be so tolerant when you return to the UK …

3. Break away from the crowd

a Kenyan marketplace
'Jua kali' businesses operating from Nakuru's main clothes market

‘Jua kali’ – in English, ‘scorching sun’ – is Swahili slang for Kenya’s informal sector. These are the entrepreneurs who, like the name suggests, spend their working days under the hot and unforgiving midday sun, working jobs like selling fruit, second hand clothes and even repairing flip flops.

But there’s a copycat culture in Kenya, and it’s the norm to see a whole street full of cobblers all fighting for the trade of a handful of customers. Speak to a few of these entrepreneurs and they’ll tell you that once a new business opens up and does well, others try to replicate their success – by replicating the idea.

The only way they can compete to win business is by dropping their prices, and as a result they sacrifice profit and stifle innovation. On Balloon’s ICS programme we encouraged these businesses to think for themselves, helping to come up with and test different ways of making and increasing profit.

4. Mobile is everything

a woman uses a mobile phone
Kenyan entrepreneurs rely on the M-Pesa mobile payment system

Imagine being able to text the owner of the cornershop a few pounds to cover your lunch, or take out £20 from your bank account through your phone while you’re at the hairdressers. Well, Kenyans can do that. And they’ve been doing it for almost ten years, thanks to the nationwide ‘M-Pesa’ mobile money service.

The whole country uses M-Pesa. That’s not an exaggeration. Users keep cash on their mobile phones and can then pay bills or send money just by sending a text. When they need the physical cash, they can then withdraw it at one of 40,000 ‘agents’ across the country in less than a minute.

It’s made it super easy for anyone to transfer money to anyone else. And for businesses, that’s great. It was a fantastic experience being able to apply this through my ICS placement and help my entrepreneurs develop endlessly creative ways to use this technology to make their business more profitable.

5. Test your assumptions

two men posing with some milk
Butcher Edward Chiera expanding his product range into dairy

In a country where more than two in five live below the poverty line, it’s only natural that entrepreneurs will be reluctant to take risks. But it’s risk taking that gives them the biggest chance of success. I never saw any shortage in creativity, just a fear of the financial fallout if their assumptions were wrong.

Edward, the butcher I was working with for 12 weeks on ICS was reluctant about the idea of introducing dairy into his business – adamant that customers wouldn’t trust purchasing milk and yogurt from a butchery. He could have been right, but after being persuaded to purchase and market a small range of dairy products outside his shop to passing customers, he sold out within half an hour.

As a result, he successfully pitched in for funding from Balloon and the local savings co-operative to purchase a fridge to store his new product range. Edward has now partitioned his shop to become both a dairy and a butchers and is taking more business than ever before.

If you’re interested in tackling poverty by working with small Kenyan businesses to support sustainable growth, click here to find out more information on the government-funded ICS programme.

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Funded by the UK Government.

ICS is funded by the UK's Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), which projects the UK as a force for good in the world, including reducing poverty and tackling global challenges.

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