Critical Customers

“Most people do not become entrenpeneurs in Kenya by choice. They just have no other options.”

The above quote comes from Leif Sjöblom. Leif is one of my favourite professors at the IMD business school in Lausanne. He has dedicated much of his time in helping African entrepreneurs. A few days ago I attended a meeting set up for IMD alumni at which Leis delivered the key note speech. Leif’s talk wasn’t long, but impressive nonetheless.

Leif explained it to us as follows. Traditionally people in Kenya scrape a modest living off the land (usually as farmers). If the plot of land your father left you children is too small to support you and your siblings the only option left is to leave for the city. Landing a job for the government is pretty much the best you can wish for, but opportunities to get such a job are few and far between. So what’s left for you to do? You start you own business, which is not that easy Kenya. There’s corruption, a dodgy and slow legal system, difficulties to get a loan, a lack of good (and honest) workers.

Think about it.

Most people I know see entrepreneurship as something desirable, something to admire and strive for. But in Kenya it’s more likely than not people’s last resort and most certainly not something they went to business school for to learn. Are Kenyan’s bad entrepreneurs? No. Not according to Leif.

Here’s some reasons why. If you sell something in the streets of Nairobi, there will be at least 10 others selling the exact same service of product. So being a good sales person, having excellent people skills and customer relations are what keep you afloat.

There’s also another reason that keeps Kenyan small business owners on the tips of their toes: Kenyan customers are amongst the most critical in the world. Why? Well, imagine yourself having only 1 dollar (or 1 Euro) to spend to get through the day. Would you waste that money on a dodgy product or a dodgy salesperson? Would you waste even 1 dime of that money on a product or a person you didn’t trust? I think not.

Perhaps we could look more closely what lessons about customer relations can be learned in Kenya instead of Kellog or Laos instead of Lausanne? One thing Leif told me after the meeting:

“All the stuff they teach you in Business school…it just doesn’t *&$#’ng work that way in Africa.”

p.s. another thought: with 80% of the world having less than 10$ a day to spend this market is huge.


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