Teaching Note: Create Empathy with your Students (guest blog 4)

Another insight I gained from working with Ujirani brought me closer to understanding some of those other ‘problems’ I had identified on my first few adventures round Nakuru, those of market saturation and the seemingly senseless crowded positioning of identical products.

One of the business problems they came up with was people ‘stealing your idea’. This came up particularly when designing a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) for a fish farming business. To test the viability of this idea Amy and I suggested that our group go around town advertising their intention to set up a fish farm and gauging market demand by targetting different customer segments. Ujirani seemed seriously concerned about the idea of going round town saying they planned to set up a fish farm, in case someone would copy them, or get in there first, leaving their business dead in the water. This concern had never occurred to Amy or I, in fact it didn’t seem that important: this risk existed in the testing stage of any business, and we struggled to communicate the concept of necessary risk to them. Doris from my Thairira widow group also came to me with this concern and stated an example; her daughter had mentioned to a friend that she was intending to set up a fish kiosk in a certain corner of Langa Langa, only to find the next day the uncle of said friend had suddenly set up shop there himself.

What was going on here?

In a society where self sufficiency is a struggle how is one supposed to teach and encourage someone to embrace the necessary element of risk involved in entrepreneurship? I feel that I can see now more clearly why businesses in Nakuru chose to copy whatever already existed and thus could be seen to work. Also why 50 banana kiosks chose to occupy the same space in the market, creating a “Banana Street” – a monkey paradise!

A permanent and guaranteed supply of customers for all is a consequence of such spacing, although obviously undermining the potential customer base for each individual. Basic financial security, and even a sense of community, rather than profit, seems the priority where self-sufficiency itself is not easy, and social and financial insecurity predominates. Carving out a new customer segment for yourself in a new area of town is a risk when the potential financial loss you face  is simply unaffordable, not to mention the loss of community, familiarity and safety that would result.

Perhaps I understood this most clearly at the end of the programme. Humphrey, one of our Ujirani youths, was late for the third time running. It being the day before the pitch, Amy and I were peeved and concerned; if Balloon Kenya is investing in the group, how could Humphrey be included? Didn’t the rest of the group think it was unfair he was not pulling his weight? Not at all, they understood he was having family troubles and by no means wanted to carry on without him. They knew that he in turn would be there for them when they needed him.