At 26 years of age, starting a business was the furthest thing from my mind. I was into my third year as a Research Analyst at the World Bank Group, surrounded by a diverse group of powerful decision makers who, like me, are passionate about Africa. I was privileged enough to attend meetings with key business leaders, presidents and prominent policy makers from the continent. I was right where I wanted to be. I had found the perfect balance of work hard/play hard. My future was clear and secure. I was going to wait out my contract, pursue a doctorate degree, return to the World Bank in my thirties and begin the long climb through ranks to senior management.
Then something interesting happened. A year ago, I left the World Bank Group to found Hadithi, a tech-based not-for-profit in Nairobi, Kenya. I did not leave because I was disgruntled, but because my job at the World Bank gave me the opportunity to witness Africa’s transformation. The information and communications technology (ICT) policy reforms that were initiated in the early 1990s, coupled with recent investments in ICT infrastructure meant that now, more than ever, was the perfect opportunity for me to start a business that I believed in. Moreover, being in my twenties, I could take the risk to invest my money and more importantly my unrestricted time as part of the returning Diaspora rediscovering Africa and engaging in a new space. It hasn’t been easy and I’ve learned a lot from the challenges I’ve faced and mistakes I’ve made.
Regardless of where you start a business, there are universal challenges. These include overcoming your fear, defining your market, finding seed capital and having the discipline to keep going. While these challenges were present in my circumstances, I’ve added and elaborated on several more specific lessons that shaped my approach to doing business in Kenya and possibly Africa at large.
Trust your Intuition
When I was at the concept stage of my business, I was introduced to several contractors and potential partners. It was exciting (and comforting) to realise that there were so many people with a keen interest in what I was doing and who seemed willing to be a part of it. While this sort of initial proof of concept from others, especially at a very early stage, is extremely rewarding, be sure to trust your instincts. If someone does not feel right, even if they appear right on paper, then they probably are not right for your business. You need to feel completely comfortable with people with whom you will be working. Take your time to find them. Give them quick deliverables and do not be afraid to take action if they do not deliver as planned.
Use your Network
Networks across Africa are small and in Kenya, they are even smaller. First, do your homework. Understand your market and what you are offering. Then list out all the people that you know working in that industry or sector. Start contacting the people you are closest to on that list. Explain what you are doing and get their feedback. Once you have gained their trust, suggest they put you in touch with two or three other people in their circle who can add value to your idea.
Informal is Normal
This was a tough lesson. Coming from a very corporate and structured environment where it appeared that most agreements were struck at roundtables or official lunches, I was very uncomfortable with after hours business meetings. As a woman, I was even more cautious of meeting with potential partners (usually men) after hours. After several failed attempts at rescheduling meetings to fit my comfort level, I finally had to succumb to what seems to be a norm. Some business deals are concluded at bars after a few drinks and then fine-tuned back at the office the next day. As one Ghanaian investor said to me: “I need to know who you really are. And that I can only tell after we’ve met in a less structured environment.”
Cheap is Expensive
As a young entrepreneur, you are probably keen on saving as much money as possible. This makes cheap deals seem more attractive. I fell into this trap as well. Since Kenya has had a proliferation of ‘techies’, everyone knows someone who can code or design for you. I shopped around and found the cheapest option for what I wanted, but as the old saying goes, you get what you pay for. I ended up having to pay twice to get something that met my desired standards. I now know that good services are costly and should be invested in wisely.
Your Business is Not You
When you start out, your business is personal. It’s all your thoughts, effort and hard work. At one point I had a meeting with an influential Kenyan entrepreneur. He wanted to know more about my business and as I explained the business model, he challenged me on several parts of it. Initially, I wondered why he was so abrasive, and why he was beating down my ideas. But an hour into the conversation he smiled and said: “You have a big problem to solve and that’s good because that’s opportunity. But remember, your business is not you. It should grow beyond you.” I often look at the notes from that meeting and I realise how useful it was in shaping future business strategy.
Get Used to Being Alone
When I decided to start a business, most people I considered friends seemed excited and willing to unveil their networks for my benefit. It was great. As I delved further into strategy and my initial enthusiasm turned into perpetual fear, I found myself increasingly alone in the process. Some of my friends did not understand my vision. In fact, most did not understand what I was doing. As an African woman who had been in banking and finance, I was accustomed to being alone at meetings and at most professional settings. However, as an entrepreneur, being alone weighs even heavier. Perhaps worse than this, there are few African female entrepreneurs to provide mentorship. Moreover, most of your cohorts are trying to establish themselves in their careers and might have little brain time for your business. Returning to Africa and to start a business in Kenya, a place I had never called home, was once a far-fetched dream. Now that it’s a reality, I have learnt to be grateful to Kenya and Kenyans, to be understanding and to be patient, as things don’t always go as planned. Founding and running a company in your twenties is difficult but I am glad I did it.