Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Team Kenya: Entrepreneurs and small businesses are a driving economic force

Dec. 15, Kisumu, Kenya

The day started off with a trip to the local Pentecostal Church where we met with a reverend and a pastor. The Church was very interesting because of their role in business in the community. The Church itself operates businesses to try and generate income for the Church besides collections and donations from the congregation. One business it has is a small private elementary school which is well respected in the community and growing at a very fast rate. The Church also operates a catering service which caters all of the events and activities for the Church, but also caters for outsiders such as weddings, parties, and meetings.

Currently the catering business is the only one which is profitable, while the others are breaking even or showing small losses. The Church is working though to improve its other businesses and claims that the others will begin to be profitable in the future since they admit they were inexperienced and did things the wrong way when they first started. Now, though, they have started a business unit and has a business director to oversee the businesses and make them successful.

A very interesting experience for us was speaking to the assistant pastor who had a fascinating and scary story regarding the post election violence that took place in Kisumu in 2007. He himself is part of the Luo tribe, but his wife is part of the Kikuyu tribe. The Kikuyu tribe is the group that was discriminated against and chased out of Kisumu during the conflict. He told us the scary story of how his wife would get continuous death threats to leave the area and eventually the story of how he had to sneak his wife and children out of the city and get them to Nairobi for safety. It was the first true firsthand experience of the conflict that we have heard, and while it was amazing to hear, it was also very disheartening.

The Church also does work to support members of its congregation in opening their own small businesses. We were so lucky because by chance the reverend was headed to bless the opening of a small business started by a woman in the congregation named Helen. We met her at the Church and spoke with her about her venture.

Her story is both sad and hopeful. Her husband died 3 months ago from sickness. Her husband was a different tribe than her and because of this his family treated her and her 2 children very poorly. Women’s rights is a huge issue in Kenya and the husband’s tribe took all of the husband’s belongings (including the house they had just finished building) and claimed she was not next of kin so she was literally left with nothing. She went to the Church in tears and they gave her 20,000 Kenyan schillings, which is about $274. She took the money and decided she could not just spend it on living expenses because it would be gone in one or two months. She attempted to find employment, but getting a job in Kenya right now is extremely difficult and she had no luck. So she decided she needed to open her own business to support her children. It was very interesting how all of these little things fell into place so that it was possible for her to open a business.

She came up with the idea to open a very small fruit juice and drink stand in the main bus station area of the city. It was so exciting to hear how hopeful she was about the business and the raw vision and drive she had to do this venture. She has plans to expand to selling snacks and then cooked food once she makes enough money to invest in those areas.

Furthermore, she said she hoped to expand in the future and open other businesses and become a successful business woman. The amazing part was hearing about the entrepreneurial spirit she had and the vision.

This woman literally has nothing but was able to use the Church money and another 70,000 shilling microfinance loan to start this business.

This gave us hope for this country because entrepreneurs and small businesses will be the driving force to economic success in Kenya. To top it off it just so happened that she is opening her business tomorrow, and today the pastor right after our meeting was going to bless her place of business. After speaking with us she insisted that we come along and of course we were so delighted and excited to go. So we got in our car and drove to the bus station which is in the middle of a huge street market. We arrived and her shop was a shipping container and she rented about a third of it, so needless to say the space was very small. Six of us crammed in and listened to the pastor pray over her place of business. Then we got to be her first customers as she offered us some mango juice that she had made for the occasion.

We all agreed that it was the freshest and most delicious mango juice we had ever had, and possibly the best juice we have had period. It was so interesting that she had noticed that many stands in the area sold sodas and water but none sold fresh juice. It was so exciting to see a woman with no business training and no experience running a business think of all the niches she could penetrate to get customers. We all left speechless at the event that we were just a part of, which may end up being the most moving and rewarding experience of our time here.

After our wonderful experience we left Helen and departed to the Kenyan Association of Manufacturers. This was a very interesting organization because it is basically a collective union of 40% of the manufacturing firms in Kenya. The firms pay to be a member and the association mainly lobbies for them in the government. Also the group does work to aid the businesses with operations, budgeting, cost control, energy savings and other services.

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