Skip to main content

Doing business in Kenya

by: Gert Jan van Reenen, Associate partner of Hofstede Insights

Overview

Currency  :  Kenyan Shilling
Time Zone: UTC +3

Three most important things for doing business in Kenya (and many other African countries):

1. Respect the hierarchy; the high scores on Masculinity and on Power Distance imply that seniority has to be taken seriously and be respected. Proper status, use of titles is very important. Make sure you do business on the highest possible level.
2. The (western) expression “Time is money” has a different meaning Kenya. Being well connected is much more important and one has to invest time in developing relationships. Failing to do so will jeopardize your efforts and not be successful and worse, you risk to be cheated. A deal is not always a deal. Things are renegotiable, even a written agreement. Mutual personal trust is more important.
3. Be well prepared (know who you are going to visit). It is necessary to provide information in advance to allow your host to be well prepared as surprises may lead to loss of face for your hosts. If, in your perception, the process gets stuck, don’t give up. It could just be a sign that more time is needed. What you thought may look like the reopening of the negotiation process, could be a signal that there isn’t yet sufficient trust; the fact that negotiations are still on is a signal that you are probably on the right track.

 

 

What to look for in a good partner:

  • Collectivism and high Power Distance underline the need to be ‘well connected’ with governmental circles.
  • Government may change overnight (after “the other party” has won the elections); others will be in charge and therefore you need to know whom to connect to.  
  • Your business partner has status, sufficient status to be able to connect to high officials and the top of companies.
  • Being well connected means that your partner is an effective ‘go-between’ ready to prepare your visit by identifying and getting in touch with whom you should meet.
  • Has working and living experience abroad in Western countries and is used to a more direct way of communication, and is able to ‘translate’ your needs and requirements.

Conduct meetings

In most cultures with high Power Distance, a meeting is in fact a way to allow the highest in charge to communicate what has already been decided. This does not mean that the decision will not be supported by the subordinates. Most probably there has been bilateral consultations in advance. This is not only to omit loss of face due to openly expressed different opinions, also the group harmony would be at stake. In the collectivist culture of Kenya (in-)group harmony needs to be maintained.

At the same time, surprises from your side need to be omitted. The practical implication is that it is your duty to make as much information available as possible in advance, either on paper (agenda of what you would like to discuss), or through your local intermediary. During meetings the exchange of ‘neutral’ information is OK as a way to get to know each other better.

Please note that, even if other employees are participating, your counterpart is in charge, being the highest in the organisation or at least during that meeting. Again, Kenya has a hierarchical culture and this should be respected.
Important: if there are several meetings for you to attend, this is in fact a positive sign. It means that the process of getting closer to the in-group is advancing.

Behaviour

Not every westerner realises that being part of an in-group (extended family, clan, etc.) has serious implications: government, politics and in-group are are intertwined. Therefore, one needs to play the network carefully, something Kenyans are very good at. Also, in western countries this aspect may play a role, however, in Kenya it’s on a different level. Try to find out through your go-between whom to approach.

During your meetings, formal or informal, omit sensitive issues like politics and politicians. Don’t forget that your counterpart may be related to them, in one way or another. Also, don’t speak about religion, ethnic groups, unless your host touches upon such topics. This may happen when you know each other better.

Have someone on the ground to help you “play this game”. Invest lots of time and energy in building relationships and always remain respectful to the Kenyans. Be aware there is no division between work-life and private-life. So be prepared to talk business at any time and any place. On the other hand, Kenyans like to enjoy life, and having fun is important. Once you get closer, Kenyans will do their utmost to please their guests. A nice dinner, a nightclub, etc. is all part of the process of becoming closer. Be ready to be invited to a dinner, be also ready to ‘fight’ over who will pay the bill when going out.. Another option is take the initiative yourself, and to invite your host for a dinner. Then for sure you will be in a position to pay the bill.

Please be aware that Kenyans do business with you personally and not primarily with your organisation, so be prepared to share a lot of personal information. Talking  about your family is quite ok, as long as the nature of this information is positive. For example, you don’t need to tell that you just divorced. Being vague about this kind of topics is not a problem; this vagueness will be an indication to your host not to elaborate on the subject.
 
It is very important to be aware as you are establishing the contact that it is a personal relationship and you cannot afford to send your colleague next time in your place. This would threaten the relationship and cooperation; your colleague would have to start from scratch. If at all, you should take care to include a transitional period, or at least a visit, where you and your colleague both participate. Find a good excuse to explain this change, as your host may consider the change as loss of face. Please note that a small lie is accepted.

Furthermore, no criticizing, commenting or rewarding openly during meetings. This could potentially be considered as loss of face. The main goal is to protect one’s position vis-à-vis one’s superiors and one’s in-group rather than goals accomplished.

The colonial past is a sensitive subject, so be careful and diplomatic in this respect.

Small jokes are allowed to keep things ‘light’, yet, make sure you use only local humour; if not, you might be misunderstood or even considered offensive. Being too serious does not add to a good atmosphere.  Storytelling can be used as a way to convey the (tough) message without being too direct.
 
Bribing occurs in many African countries, Kenya is not an exception. This is partly related to collectivism: people have to take care of their (even remote) family members. However, thinking along the lines of high power distance definitely leads to corruption: “you have to pay me so I can clear the way for you”.

A small gift is no problem, of course, this could be part of the development of a personal relationship. If you represent your (western) government or international organisation, this is simply not an option. Please note that Chinese businessmen and government representatives in Kenya probably have a different approach in this concern.

In case you do consider giving a bribe, you need other people to assist you (never do it yourself) who are more familiar with the system.
 
The way people dress in Kenya is generally conservative. During business hours a suit and neck-tie for men is preferred.  Dressing this way is important as it is an indication of status and importance. Men generally wear dark suits and ties or the national dress; women should wear dark, demure business-style suits. Take into account when choosing your outfit that Kenya is a hot place. During the rainy season be protected against heavy downpours.

Business Meals

As Kenyans like to enjoy life, a meal is a way to get closer to each other. Invitations can be extended from both sides. When you are invited by your host, accept this and see it as a sign that the relationship is developing. Especially so if you are invited to the home. If you want to entertain your hosts, make sure to do it generously, especially if you seriously consider to engage in business with them. Besides, this is a way to show you are a successful person.

How to manage people and build trust

Again, the description below fits most sub-saharan countries. In a management or comparable position, towards junior staff you will behave as a “benevolent and strict father” (i.e. paternalistic attitude). As the most senior (considered) person, you are in control, implying that you know everything. Even if you don’t know you will inform the others to get back to this issue later (use some excuse, like “I need to check the details”).
 
In high power distance situations like in Kenya, things get more complicated if you are a relatively young person representing your organisation or company. Your boss gave you a mandate to act on behalf of your organisation. Your Kenyan host (probably more senior age-wise) may consider you like a ‘junior’, not the correct level to do business with. Of course, it depends also on what you are offering. Legitimisation of your role and position might be necessary, and should be provided by your bosses. Your bosses may consider to take the first steps in the process, i.e. to establish the relationship and let operational tasks being implemented by the ‘junior’ colleague. And for the ‘junior’ representative it would be wise to show respect for the ‘senior’ host. How? By sending him confidential notes (so that he can tune in or act as if it his idea), by flattery and by making sure to be indirect (in case of comments of negative feedback). Legitimation of your role and position by others (your intermediate, your embassy, etc.) might be helpful. However, always show respect for your more senior host.

Be especially careful with

  • Taking authorities for granted. Your entry into the country should be well prepared in terms of knowledge of the people and organisations you will depend upon. At the same time, always respect the hierarchy.
  • Being direct and addressing ‘wrong’ topics, i.e. religion, politics, the president (‘how come you have such an old guy as president?”), etc.
  • Bribing. Bribing is everywhere (related to government and power) and you should be prepared for this. Do it (use an intermediary) or don’t do it (and be very patient to get things done).

 

Short case study

The new team manager of our (UN sponsored) project, Grim, was a man from Sweden. Being a very opinionated and prejudiced person, nobody in the team really liked him. Grim met soon after his arrival a beautiful Kenyan lady and married her. “I know the Africans” he would tell repeatedly, “Good for nothing, including the minister. Except the beautiful women, haha”. Of course, also the local team members were very much aware of Grim’s outspoken behaviour.

After a year, his contract had to be renewed. Generally a formality, a decision to be approved by the minister in charge. Grim, instead, received a letter from the minister telling him that he had to leave the country within 48 hours.

The case study shows that being explicit about others will eventually backfire. As we have seen, Kenya has a collectivist culture. You may safely assume that the local project staff was somehow related to the minister concerned: same tribe, same village, same family. Grim did a) not respect the hierarchy and b) insulted not only the minister but also the local team members, making them to lose face.