What does sustainability mean in the context of Kenya’s informal sector?
Following our debate on sustainability many volunteers were left questioning their own understanding of the word ‘sustainability’. The UK volunteers in particular found their westernised perspective of the term being questioned as they tried to apply it in the context of Kenya’s informal sector.
In England, we a have clear perceptions of how businesses should behave and we have a huge range of bodies in place to monitor their impact on our society. Can we realistically expect these same ideals to apply when working in Kenya?
In search of clarification, we decided that the best thing to do would be to head out into the field and talk to the business people of Eldoret to get their take on the topic. With our assumptions ready to be challenged, we spoke to three of the entrepreneurs that we are currently working with.
What does sustainability mean to you?
Peter: “A sustainable business, after initial costs, is able to pay for itself. That means all costs, bills, salaries are covered – it’s self-sufficient. I saw a BBC documentary that said that 90% of businesses started by young people fail before their 5th birthday. My dream is for my business to see its 6th birthday – now that would be sustainability!”
Kelvin: “Sustainability is what keeps me growing! Being sustainable means meeting my family’s needs and putting bread on the table. You know, there is so much unemployment here in Kenya so sustainability is about creating employment for others too.”
Eva: “A sustainable business doesn’t require help from anywhere else. It makes more than it costs and it looks after itself. Actually, there are two stages to sustainability. First the business sustains itself, and then it starts to sustain you. The more profit you make the more you can sustain yourself.”
From these answers it’s clear to see that the people of Eldoret have a different slant on the word sustainability. The emphasis is really on ‘sustain’ – a business that lasts and that can provide for its workers and their families.
To achieve the ‘Western ideology’ of sustainable development, the UN has outlined the above 17 goals. Balloon Ventures aims to encourage the development of sustainable enterprises through the creation of decent work opportunities for young people and economic growth (goal number 8 on the charter above) in the countries where it operates. The question is: How far can we do this while respecting every single one of these goals?
Have we always thought this way? Did we have the same standpoint during our own development process? No! Our perception of how businesses should be run has drastically evolved over time. Corporate Social Responsibility and Environmental Impact Assessments, now commonly deemed as essential, have taken decades to be implemented properly. You could say that they are a product of our very recent moral enlightenment.
Of course we should aim to do business in ways that respect the environment, for example, but can this be allowed to impact negatively on our fight to eradicate poverty and hunger? One of Balloon Ventures’ greatest strengths is our ability to share our experiences, coming from an already developed country, with those who need it the most. We have made many mistakes during our development process and we can help others to avoid making these same mistakes. However, the challenge lies in finding a balance. We must grow businesses sensibly but we will never achieve this if we impose unrealistic constraints that cannot realistically be met in a developing economy.
This is why, like we said last week, it would be unrealistic to only be involved with already sustainable businesses. Our aim should be to grow businesses and set them up in a way that ‘sustainability’ be achievable in the future.