I have had the humbling honor to travel to different countries in the past and one thing has been very troubling for me whenever I introduce myself as coming from Kenya, Nairobi. My most recent experience was yesterday on a long flight from Nairobi to Casablanca. I was seated next to a co-participant of COP22 Conference being held at Marakech, Morocco whom we started a conversation after going through some stomach-rumbling, fist-clinching bumpy rides 40,000 feet above sea level. Shameful of us! Anyways, he asks : “Aha my friend, so tell me about the booming entrepreneurship ecosystem in Nairobi”. All spotlight and investment in Sub Saharan Africa is focused on Kenya’s entrepreneurs of late”. In a moment of déjà vu, I hear myself saying, “Is it?” and seeing the wide anticipating grin on his face realize he is actually serious and excited to hear more. I do a quick redemption and suppress my suspicions with a loud clearing of my throat.
The last five years have seen the entrepreneurs’ ecosystem in Kenya triple in both its fortunes and infrastructural development, this is a given. In fact in this time, mega-global tech-players (Google, IMB, Intel, Nokia, Microsoft, and the recent visit to Kenya of Mark Zuckerberg) have shown deliberate intent to tap into the rich innovative and ‘hustlers’ spirit’ (as we like to call it locally) of the Kenya people. There have been multi-million dollar investments in creating state-of-the-art co-working spaces, research labs, incubation, and technology centers within the country. In addition to this, Kenya has played host to different global summits such as The Global Entrepreneurs Summit 2015 among others. And many more…
With this background, anyone can be forgiven for being under the impression that all entrepreneurs in Kenya are at a vantage point as far as tapping into these opportunities goes. So, to my friend, I just returned the smile and quietly ‘enjoyed the almost-celebrity-status-of-the-moment’ before reverting that there is something slightly more to the story of Kenya’s entrepreneurs’ ecosystem than meets the eye. His silence for the next 20 minutes of my rambling and blabber is deafening as I subconsciously feel one of two neighbours eavesdropping in our one-sided discussion. So the discussion lasts the rest of the flight and I realize that I have to redo my whole presentation. I am featuring as a Kickoff Event Speaker at the Startup of Year Africa 2017 tasked with sharing my reflections on Kenya’s Entrepreneurship Ecosystem and I realize I need to talk about our discussion, the place of low-profile entrepreneurs.
One month ago, my startup organized an event dubbed The Nairobi Entrepreneurs Camp that specifically targeted entrepreneurs from rural parts of Kenya working on high-impact social projects. During this three day experience, entrepreneurs had access to high-profile hands-on training in business development, marketing, pitching, social impact measurement, and value creation etc; topics they have rarely had access to. They had an opportunity to be hosted in Nairobi, at A Cool Co-Working Space brushing shoulders with high profile instructors and serial entrepreneurs from all over the world; getting that coveted access to vital resources and platforms that high-profile entrepreneurs enjoy on a daily basis; the kind that is commensurate with the hype that Kenya’s entrepreneurs are all thought to have by the rest of the world (represented by my friend).
Being an entrepreneur with extensive experience in rural settings and a strong believer that business ventures that do not deliberately constitute a quantifiable strong bottom-of-the-pyramid social impact element should not be considered entrepreneurial, I talk passionately about these types of entrepreneurs. Despite my relative exposure to what one would describe as being in the privileged class, I still struggle on numerous occasions to identify myself with the high-profile privileged entrepreneurs’ ecosystem renown for Kenyan community. In other words, from time to time I find myself fidgeting to boldly associate myself with say, iHub Nairobi , iLab Africa or iBiz Africa, all of which are the platforms that define the entrepreneurs’ ecosystem in Kenya. This explains my sheepish smile when my excited friend thought I was so privileged to come from Nairobi.
I hold that controversial school of thought that it is time that Africa shifted its attention towards low-profile entrepreneurs. By this I do not mean merely during data collection and social impact assessment escapades, no. It is high time that those driving the entrepreneurial ecosystem of Africa strongly provided direct links to low-profile entrepreneurs to access not only grants and soft loans but also the infrastructure and resources that will help them accelerate and grow their businesses. They need reliable, affordable and stable electricity, internet connectivity and co-working spaces, coding and social media marketing skills (among others) just like the rest of us freely enjoy. I am not deaf to the fact that this endeavor is financially unrewarding and does not have strong revenue models for those who dare to reach this community not just to use their emotional stories of deplorable poverty and illiteracy to create a social narrative for funding, but to actually empower them with resources, skills and infrastructure for them to become independent. I crave for the day iHub Nairobi , iLab Africa or iBiz Africa and the rest will start having rural based centers giving equal reach to low-profile entrepreneurs who need the hype, NOW!
I am therefore looking forward to the discussions and resolutions at this year’s COP22 Conference in Marakech