Small Business in Kenya is not the same

After a great visit to London and Belfast working with business owners (I’ve been asked to come back in May), I was on to Kenya on Thursday, arriving at 9:30pm at night. The ride from the airport was fascinaing. The paved road from the airport was worse than most back roads anywhere in the US. Along the way there were giant open-air tire fires that people were burning to extract the wires – huge billowing black pyres of suffocating smoke.

Dust in the air was thick as fog (even without the fires). Every other vehicle in front of us was belching something noxious (the driver kept passing them to try to get us into the clear). For an uninitiated American on their first visit, it was like driving through a war zone. For Kenyans it was another pickup at the airport.

Then we pulled onto dirt that didn’t qualify as a road – ruts too deep for a regular car – our friend has a Land Rover. It felt like an alley but it is a main street. Not wide enough for two cars with houses right up against the dirt road, boulders and rocks everywhere as if no one is living there. He beeped and his wife opened the iron gate to let us park in the equivalent of a tight one car car-port (no roof), then close the iron gate again. The only entrance to the house is in the walled car-port. All stone-block construction, this house is especially nice – all the walls are covered with adobe. Most on the street are just jagged stone blocks, and probably only half are completed, the rest standing in various stages of construction, but still lived in.

Concrete floors everywhere – no rugs. Windows have glass but are open most of the time. Not many insects – mostly some flies. They have satellite TV that is on constantly, and basic electricity. The last five days the running water was not running. My second day here (today) it came on again, but likely won’t stay on for very long. They have an upstairs where I’m staying, very rare in this lower middle class neighborhood, which would look worse to most Americans than some of our worst slums.

Walking up the concrete stairwell to my room the first night was like walking in a basement. My bedroom has a bed with a mosquito net and a wardrobe that clearly isn’t used (I rigged it up to hold some of my clothing). No other furniture except the hub of a car wheel. Toilet with no seat in the hall – I’m sharing that with another woman and a guy in rooms beside me. Oh, and the wall goes up eight feet, but then there is a two foot gap to the tin roof above me – so the woman and I are essentially just separated by a tall knee wall – we’re able to hear each other turn over in bed. Just like camping!

Yesterday afternoon we met some business owners selling liquid soap for 250 shillings ($3.25) and hoping to get a machine to make peanut butter, for which there is less competition than soap. Their soap sells pretty well because it has a label and many others don’t – the right marketing works here, too. We also met with 20+ single women who have banded together and pooled their money each week to give one of them a loan to build their business. 23 of us sat in a 9×11 room with a lot of furniture in it (most stood) while they counted up that week’s revenue and made a loan of 6,700 shillings (about $89) to one of them. If she pays it back in six months or less, she can get another one.

It was a hundred degrees in those tight quarters and we finished the meeting with everyone drinking very hot chai tea – a traditional “close” to any meeting.

Oh, and to get to this second floor room we passed through a 5’ tall steel door on the street and into a pitch-black stairwell where you couldn’t see the person in front of you until you got up to the room and they opened the door. One of the women lived there with her children. They move the meeting around every week so no one can figure out their pattern and rob them of their loan money.

Today is another day. I’m supposed to teach these amazing people small business principles. After less than two days I’m realizing I have much more to learn than I will be able to “teach”.