Over the past several months, I’ve been thinking about what it means to be a foreigner who started a company in Kenya. While I’ve been in Kenya since 2008, living for two years in a small village called Muhuru Bay and the past five years in Nairobi, I still don’t understand several things about the culture and life in Kenya. Although I wholeheartedly attempt to immerse myself in all Nairobi has to offer—music, food, arts, culture, the scenery—I 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.
Keeping a firm commitment to local staff should be a priority for any startup in the African market. Tweet This Quote
No matter how long I stay here, I will always look, be perceived as, 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 short loop between Kileleshwa and Kilimani.
That said, I feel incredibly fortunate to have started Eneza with two amazing Kenyans—Kago and Chris. In our current team of 16 people—including five managers, seven other full-time employees, and four interns—as well as our 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 proud of that aspect of our team. Many people, especially expats in this space, find this shocking.
A person I consider a mentor here in Nairobi (who also happens to 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 have to do it quickly before the ship sinks.
It is deeply powerful, enlightening and better for your business to hire only local people, making only rare exceptions. Tweet This Quote
But, there are reasons why it is deeply powerful, enlightening and better for your business to only hire local people, making an exception only 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 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 in line with what our customers want and need. Listening to my co-founders or our head of business development tell stories of when they were in school is enlightening. The intuition involved with what Kenyans and even Africans need is everything to our business. It enables us to pitch better, make rapid iterations on our products, better communicate with our customers and truly feel for them.
Africans understand African customers—foreigners rarely do. Tweet This Quote
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. Several months ago, I was in a school in Nairobi where our agents were pitching to a head teacher. Then, 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 on a donation day. The head teacher had immediately seen me as a dollar sign. I was not a teacher helping lead a company, I was a mzungu with money who could give something to the school. When I don’t visit schools personally, our sales improve and we aren’t viewed as a Tom’s shoe-dropping machine. We’re taken seriously.
Your customers want to talk with a local person; often they’ll treat you differently if there is a foreigner around. Tweet This Quote
3. You can better maneuver the political scene when the staff negotiating is local. There are certain cultural cues and power dynamics that take years of living in a culture to understand. I often commit taboos in the ways 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 do), if you’ve grown up in Kenya, these dynamics are obvious. The 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.
You can better maneuver the political scene when the staff negotiating is local. Tweet This Quote
4. Your business will be sustainable. One may argue against me on this, but I wholeheartedly believe 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 ten 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.
If your employees aren’t from the country you’re working in, they probably won’t stick around for too long. Tweet This Quote
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?
It’s hard, but 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.
This post was originally published on Toni’s blog in June 2015.