“there is plenty the Kenyans do notably better than the UK”


As a marketing graduate one of the main aspects of Balloon Kenya I was looking forward to understanding was how micro-businesses in Kenya utilise marketing tools to communicate their businesses, products and ideas to prospective and current customers. During the introductory week we learned the Balloon Curriculum. The curriculum entailed all aspects of entrepreneurialism, ranging from idea generation to finance to marketing. The teaching of marketing came in the form of a small segment of a business development tool, named the Business Model Canvas (BMC). The BMC was developed on the premise of being able to reduce all components of a business to one page and the marketing component fell under the heading of Get, Keep and Grow. So, how exactly do you attain your customers, how do you then retain that existing customer base and finally how is it that you then encourage that existing customer base to spend more money.

Half way through the first week we were set a twelve hour challenge; speak to locals and business owners in Njoro, develop a business concept based upon our findings and subsequently present the idea to the other volunteers. As a marketer it was only natural for me to focus on the marketing and advertising of businesses when speaking to locals and what I found was incredibly interesting – there was simply no advertising – by UK standards. The conversations followed a similar dialogue. I would ask if they advertised, they would say yes, I would ask how and they would say word of mouth. When probing a little further on the word of mouth strategy adopted by each of these budding entrepreneurs it recurringly amounted to telling friends and family; which is brilliant but it doesn’t particularly generate the greatest footfall. This initial finding was later confirmed when I was introduced to my entrepreneurs; word of mouth was the marketing buzz word for Njoro.

When enquiring about the lack of marketing it soon became apparent that the rationale behind the omission was cost. With cost it wasn’t necessarily that they were each unable to afford some basic posters as was my initial assumption, but because any money noted to be going out of the business was seen to be on a one way ticket – opposed to the UK mentality of spending money to make money. The business operations in Njoro run cyclically in stagnation. Buy stock, sell stock, keep profit for their personal use; buy the same quantity of stock, sell the same quantity and keep the same quantity. Additionally, given the regular convergence between personal finances and business finances any surplus cash after the stock is sold seems naturally to topple into the personal account rather than being used as an injection for growth.

An example of this is with a second hand jacket seller named Mary. Mary spends 15,000ksh on a bundle of jackets and sells them outside her house. She would love to expand her product line but never seems to have the money to invest in two bundles at once. However, after working out her profit margins it became apparent she was already making more than enough money per month to live on and by investing the additional profit which she was previously on unnecessary purchases, in two months she would be able to afford to expand her product line. The idea then introduced to bring the strategy to life was opening a fixed bank account and depositing 200ksh per day via M.Pesa (mobile banking) until the 15,000ksh mark is reached and a new product can be invested in.

As an introduction it may sound as if this blog is favouring UK marketing strategies, but in fact there is plenty the Kenyans do notably better than the UK.

Following the structure of the BMC, the initial advertising discussed with the local business owners would fall under the category of Get. Keep, on the other hand, is the Kenyan strong point. I was interested to find that many of the entrepreneurs I am working with, their customers are repeats. In the UK where customer loyalty is notoriously minimal I was intrigued to understand how the Kenyans managed to retain their customers with such ease when there are several other competitors offering almost identical products in less than a kilometre.

I found the answer when sitting in the entrepreneurs shops and observing them. They give the customer an unparalleled level of attention. Not in the cliché McDonaldized, entirely fake smile, followed by a begrudgingly chirpy ‘how are you today’ – but in a way where they genuinely want to get to know the customer, who they are, where they’re from and what they do. It seems to be that investment of time and attention that lures the customer back – beyond the product or service available. An interesting contrast which I can draw upon from personal experience here, is flagship of customer service in the UK, John Lewis compared with micro-businesses I have been working with in Kenya. Whilst in university I used to work for John Lewis in the inbound call, customer contact centre. One of the key performance indicators as a customer service agent is time spent per call. If it was an average of over 4.5 minutes then questions were asked as to exactly what you were doing on the phone for such excessive amounts of time.

Of course, there are other elements of a business which can induce loyalty but certainly in terms of the customer service I have observed the Kenyans have the upper hand.

Finally, the Grow aspect of marketing I found to be in shortage with Kenyan entrepreneurs due to complacency with the businesses operations. If the product they sell, sells then why change? The mentality seems to follow the dogma of if it isn’t broke don’t fix it. The paradigm we have been trying to shift to with our entrepreneurs is if it isn’t perfect, don’t stop developing. I suppose this complacency would in part link back to the fear of sending money out on a one way ticket again.

We have tried to encourage the paradigm shift by introducing new ideas and testing them in their minimum viable product. So, this is the most basic and cost efficient way of detecting whether a new idea will be feasible at scale. An example of this can be seen with Stephen, an entrepreneur of ours who is a mobile nail artist. Stephen said he would like to also sell beauty products, which is difficult to implement given the mobile nature of his job and having to carry around a sack full of cosmetics. The solution provided in its minimal viable product, borrowed the idea from Avon. Stephen would purchase a small quantity of stock, take pictures and have them listed in a leaflet which is then distributed to all of his customers so in future when they contact him for the nail art they can also request him to bring certain products with him.

In conclusion, I was wrong with my initial surface level assumption of Kenyan marketing. When speaking to the business owners about their marketing strategy, the word of mouth response I was given wasn’t at all accurate. To them, marketing amounted to advertising, to me it amounted to the 7 Ps of marketing; price, product, place, promotion, people, packaging and positioning. It was my questioning that was wrong. So it was only when digging that I found they each to some extent had their own marketing strategies, some of which were very good and just because they weren’t formally written down in an annual document doesn’t make them any less prevalent, just less British.

Blog contributed by Ollie Tuffney, ICS volunteer, Njoro, June 2015