(Un)Finished Business

Our work in Nakuru has ended now, at least formally. But I believe the work has just begun. We only started spinning the gears aiming to move a bigger machine. Although we officially learned entrepreneurship for 1 week and taught for 5 weeks, the whole month and a half became a learning process.

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The entrepreneurs in my two groups were very different, and the fellows I shared those with were as well. Since Izzy was born and raised in Kenya, being her partner helped me empathise with the realities of the Kenyan entrepreneurs, and appreciate even more the efforts they made to be in the sessions at least twice a week, not even counting the hours they dedicated to work on product testing and financial projections. I was not expecting the entrepreneurs to be so motivated, with a keen desire to create business and be successful. But they were, and that motivation was extremely contagious. Heck, Samwel, from the Noko Kona Youth group, had his child born a couple hours before his pitch, and he arrived well in time for his presentation. If that’s not commitment, I don’t know what it is. Working with Rik was incredibly enriching as well. With his background in History, he provided the Free Area group and I with a more social approach to business, as well as a deep understanding of the implications of our location in Nakuru in the proposed business models.

Not everything went smoothly. There were challenges. Innovation and the philosophy of “being different” are core components of Balloon Kenya’s curriculum. In a semi-urban setting, such as the one in Nakuru Town, with better access to resources and a higher population density, it is perhaps easier to find and try ways to create value with new, innovative products and services. But in a small, rural area like Lanet, where customers are scarce and their resources severely limited, it is both challenging and perhaps pointless to create a kinyozi (barber) shop that is significantly different from the rest. At least from what I observed, customers here are just looking to get the job done as cheap and fast as possible. This is not to say that innovation is impossible in rural areas, but rather than it relies mostly on the quality of the relationships of the business with its customers.

There were many interesting cultural differences between the Kenyans and me, but perhaps the one that impacted me the most was the unprecedented sense of community among them. This, at least in my perception, can be a double-edged sword. When Mutinda – from the Free Area group – and I were discussing pricing for his Chips & Fries in Nakuru Town, I asked him why he didn’t go for a 120 KSH/= price per dish instead of the 100 KSH/= he sold his test product for. To this he just answered: “I know I’m offering high quality food and that I could easily sell for 120 KSH/=, but I think 100 is enough. I just want to feed my people and make a living from it.” I don’t know if this was the case with the rest of the fellows in their groups, but this resistance to higher margins in order to support their communities really showed me the strength of Kenyan solidarity. Something similar happened when I asked the shoe vendors in the alley near the boxing club why they sold the same shoes for the same prices to the same customers. “Why don’t they try to be different and destroy the competition?” I asked myself. They said they always agree on set prices at the start of the season and you cannot go up or down. You can’t mess with the status quo or they will group against you. The same applies for matatu and tuk-tuk rides too. That’s just the way it is. On the positive side, this collective way of conducting business enables them to harvest benefits equally and on fairer grounds. But it also discourages innovation and fosters a conformist attitude. This ideology is deeply attached into them and is not something we can or should change. It contrasts with the perception of business and competition we’re used to, and it has proved to be extremely insightful and interesting.

As I mentioned before, Balloon Kenya was an extraordinary experience in every sense. In the end you realise it’s more a learning than a teaching experience. You learn from and with the Kenyan entrepreneurs. I can’t thank everyone that made this possible enough. The marvels you see in Balloon Kenya’s website and brochures? Yeah, that’s not just marketing, it’s true. However there is much unfinished business here and there’s plenty to get done. The fellows in August and in the following years will need to start fresh with new Kenyan entrepreneurs and live new challenges. I’m sure that when their flights from Nairobi take off, they’ll have a great smile on their faces and feel incredibly rewarded.

Written By Apolinar Toba, 2013 Fellow

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