The Problem with business problems (Guest post 2)

In the search for a commercially successful new business, we started by getting the Kenyan groups to identify appropriate business problems. These are problems for which a solution is:

  • desirable
  • feasible
  • viable

business problems

The first condition does not usually cause any conceptual difficulty, that a solution for a problem is desirable is fairly self-evident, although more or less urgent or relevant depending on local conditions. However, the second condition proved to be a major sticking point. “Can we as a group solve this problem?”

A typical list which we would be presented with might be:

Unemployment, Disease, Poverty, Tribalism, Idleness, Security…

It seemed common sense to us that problems like ‘poverty’ and ‘disease’ were not problems which any of our groups were in any position to be able to solve, or indeed any one else for that matter! Yet we were consistently presented with these huge problems.

However, with hindsight I think I can see where the misunderstanding arose. In a society where the sort of structures we enjoy – public healthcare, legal institutions, policing – are less strong, Kenyans are forced to tackle these BIG problems themselves. They have to!

It is the only currently practicable way of addressing these problems in the society they inhabit. Contextually they were providing perfectly valid answers – understanding the context revealed that we were asking the wrong question.

Remembering back to the very first lesson I had with my Thairira widows in which I asked them why they had formed as a group in the first place, they said ‘Togetherness’. This is in fact what Thairira means in their tribal tongue. I thought that was a lovely sentiment, and then thought no more about it. I remember the next week standing in front of them frustrated, asking Lydia if she really thought disease was a problem which they could solve as a group themselves, and I now feel more than a little ashamed…

Yes! It is a problem that they do go some way towards solving themselves. They solve the problems of disease for each other. When one of them falls ill and can’t work, the rest help buy her medicine, and help her to hospital, cover her work and look after her children. Doris in particular was adamant that their group can solve the problem of disease. She told me that as widows in a patriarchal society, they struggled to find a place socially and economically, they needed each other to help them through crises like illness, which they solved in a very real way. To solve the problem of disease, at least for themselves, was in fact a major reason that they had formed this little group!