Every bird flies with its own wings

By Marianne Foskett, Nakuru 2014 Summer Programme Fellow

“Every bird flies with its own wings”…

…so the Swahili proverb goes.

Words of wisdom established by ancestors and passed down through generations of friends and family who come together under one roof to put the world to right over chai or a feast of ugali.

Proverbs mean different things to different people. No doubt many proverbs boast obscure origins, emerging out of a context that nowadays might seem rather archaic, even irrelevant.

Yet they are born out of human experience allowing them to transcend any boundaries inadvertently produced by the passing of time, providing up-to-date guidance in an ever-changing world.

So what does this have to do with business development in Nakuru, the thriving economic centre of Kenya’s incredibly beautiful Rift Valley?

The answer is simple: everything.

Walking along the lively streets of Nakuru provides a privileged insight into the business initiatives propping up the local economy. From fundis to fruit sellers, tuk tuk drivers to M-Pesa agents, simple business lessons that throw light onto the challenges facing local economic development can be learnt everywhere.

On the way to a 9am meeting at the Boxing Club (aka Madison Square Garden no less) in the centre of town, you pass four ladies selling fresh fruit salad and juice. Three stalls are lined up side-by-side whilst the fourth faces the group on the other side of the narrow street. There are shaded benches behind the stalls where you can sit in the cool and enjoy a wonderful fresh avocado, passion fruit and mango juice (a particular favourite!) at your own leisure.

No problem so far. Nothing seems amiss until you realise that there are four businesses offering exactly the same product and service within a 3-metre radius. We pointed this out to one of the ladies who replied that there was once only one stall in that area but due to its success, others had come along and copied the idea.

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This pattern is by no means the exception to the rule. Shoe vendors selling the same shoes in the same alley, boutiques offering tourists the same souvenirs in the same part of town and clothes stalls offering the same clothes and services as its neighbour have sprung up alongside one another, capitalising on someone else’s idea.

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But how do they compete to keep business buoyant?

Price. In many cases, businesses end up competing purely on price but not in the traditional sense. Here two street vendors will keep lowering their prices to undercut one another to snatch the sale. Result? They sacrifice their profit and the chance of a healthy, sustainable business.

Kenya’s “copycat” economy is a huge threat to business development in the region, undermining already successful business initiatives and preventing new innovative ideas entering the market as healthy competition.

Moving away from competing purely on low prices will inevitably open up a more diverse local economy that is more viable and resilient in the long-run. So, now is definitely the time for Kenyan businesses to listen to ancestral wisdom and dare to “fly with their own wings”.

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