**This post was originally published in June 2015, on my personal blog. I have not edited or updated it since then.**
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it means to be a foreigner who has started a company in Kenya. While I’ve been here in Kenya since 2008, having lived 5 of the past 7 years in Nairobi and a small village called Muhuru Bay, there is still much about culture and life in Kenya that I don’t understand. Although I whole-heartedly attempt to immerse myself in all Nairobi has to offer – music, food, arts, culture, the scenery – I still often find myself sipping a cappuccino at Arte Café amongst a host of mzungus (foreigners, and more specifically, white people). I get tired and ache for a bit of home, excitedly dipping a cookie into a foaming cup of the Kenyan coffee usually reserved for exports.
No matter how long I stay here, I will always look and be perceived and most importantly, feel foreign. I stand out. I can be a target for crime. I get stared at when I venture outside the confines of my little Kileleshwa <> Kilimani loop de loop.
That said, I feel incredibly fortunate to have started Eneza with two amazing guys who are Kenyan – Kago and Chris. And what you’ll notice about our Eneza Team is that out of 16 people currently on it – 5 managers, 7 other full-time employees, 4 interns, 40 teacher content creators, and 60 agents – I am the only foreigner. I am also the only white person. Our staff represents a myriad of ethnicities and religions that, to me, reflect the make-up of Kenya itself. I’m really proud of that aspect of our team. To many people, especially those who are expats in the social enterprise space, they’re shocked.
A person I consider a mentor here in Nairobi (who happens to also be white) once said to me, “The talent exists here; you just need to find it.” I understand that time might not be on a startup’s side, however. You have to find someone to fit a desperate need and you gotta do it quickly before the ship sinks. But, there are reasons why it is so deeply powerful, enlightening and better for your business to only hire local people and only make an exception in an extreme case. When we started Eneza, we didn’t have this as a policy – and we still don’t. Something about having foreigners on our team just didn’t seem right. Three years of reflection later, I’ve compiled my list of why we hire African.
1. Africans understand African customers – foreigners very rarely do.
I may deeply understand rural African areas because I lived there for a year. I may get teachers and understand their frustrations because I was one. But not having that first-person perspective of what it’s like to be Kenyan, growing up with the Kenyan media and in the Kenyan culture, (not just an expat culture, but a Kenyan culture,) will always hold us back as a company. I recognize that, and I try to do everything possible to keep us inline with what our customers want and need. Listening to my co-founders or our head of biz dev tell stories of when they were in school is enlightening. The intuition involved with what Kenyans and even Africans need is everything to your business. It enables you to pitch better; it enables you to make rapid iterations on your products, to better communicate with your customers and to truly feel for your customers.
2. Your customers want to talk with a local person; often they’ll treat you differently if there is a foreigner around.
I’ve witnessed this first hand. Last week I was in a school in Nairobi where our agents were first pitching to a head teacher. I gave the head teacher my card, explained to her that I was a teacher too, and told her why we started Eneza. Two days later, we received a note in our office asking us to contribute cash to the school for a donation day. The head teacher had immediately seen me as a dollar sign when I walked into the school building. I was not a teacher helping to lead a company, I was a mzungu with money who could give something to the school. When I don’t visit schools personally, we have better sales and aren’t viewed as a Tom’s shoe dropping machine. We’re taken seriously.
3. You can better maneuver the political scene when the staff negotiating is local. T
here are certain cultural cues and power dynamics that take years of living in a culture to understand. I often commit taboos in the ways that I do business in Kenya. Luckily for me, our staff usually negotiates our business in Kenya – I don’t. They understand what power dynamics are at play and how to maneuver them. One of our employees pulled me aside the other day and described to me the best way of first approaching head teachers based on her understanding of the school power dynamics. While you could learn a lot of these things as a foreigner through trial and error, (which I still use!) if you’ve grown up in Kenya, these dynamics are obvious. These subtle power cues and our ability to leverage them has substantially increased the efficiency of Eneza’s distribution network of schools and how we do business.
4. Your business will be sustainable.
One may argue against me on this, but I whole-heartedly believe that it’s true. If your employees aren’t from the country you’re working in, they probably won’t stick around for too long. When people join the Eneza Team, we bring them into the family. We want them to eat, sleep, and breathe Eneza. We want them to see a future with our company 10 years down the road. We want them to know and feel that Eneza is created by Africans for Africans. How would we be able to do this if we had a mostly white or foreign management team? While I’m sure Americans or other foreigners bring strengths to a team, and may bring additional critical thinking skills, what these foreigners produce are often ‘quick wins’ for a company. A bump in sales, a more efficient system, a neat CRM tool. But the people who have the most impact on our team are those who are on it the longest and become deeply embedded into the Eneza family. That’s really hard to do when the company looks and feels foreign.
So yes, finding those who have deep market knowledge and the skills you need for a startup is challenging when you’re foreign. How do you go about meeting local staff when your friends and networks are all foreigners? But in my mind, and in light of what I think the market deeply needs, keeping a firm commitment to local staff should be a priority for any startup in the African market. (I’m not saying there aren’t benefits to bringing skills and expertise from outsiders. We are finally becoming open to a non-Kenyan hire on our team.)
What’s going to make a business work in Kenya, however, is the patience and the resilience that Kenyans distinctly bring to the table. It is our duty, as foreign founders, to never, ever forget that.