Why entrepreneurs in Kenya should be on TV shaping public opinion

A few days ago, President Uhuru Kenyatta attended an SMEs conference. He admitted that entrepreneurs in Kenya have been let down. “…we have neglected you,” he said. This President does say things like these a lot, don’t you think? He is like a bad boyfriend; who admits to wrong, works your emotions, plays your chords and goes back to habit. So, we will not give in to his latest statement too much.

But the statement is true. Kenya has not ensured that the fundamentals are right for small business owners. The well-intentioned move to finance women entrepreneurs is one example. The people behind it forgot that women are not some monolithic entity. Okay, they are by all being women but the context is different.

All women entrepreneurs in Kenya do not have the same needs. They operate in different industries and they live in different environments. Some operate in rural areas, others hustle in urban settings. More, women are obviously of different backgrounds. For example, education level will influence perception of entrepreneurship.

Even the youth in Kenya being urged to found businesses have not received the right dose of help. We got past it, entrepreneurs need help too. It’s fairly difficult, in Kenya, to import a machine and get the licenses to start a business. Any young Kenyan who has tried will confirm that these will overwhelm any starting financing plan. Even seasoned entrepreneurs in Kenya complain of the same problem. A bitter pill for a second time is still bitter.

It’s only one reason, but it is, why many Kenyans opt to start informal businesses. Unfortunately, we have normalized second-rate treatment of these business people. Their role is to be ordered into the next hawkers’ market. I wonder how much say they ever get into their own matters. I swear, the treatment of informal business owners in this country is more patronizing than anything I’ve come across. Only those crusaders who think African countries can’t negotiate loan deals with China, or whomever, come close.

Who is to blame?

The Government has to bear half the blame. After all, you can’t start a business in Kenya without their permission. Adulting is not a scam, licensing is the scam. The Government should just reduce barriers of entry into business. They will (or is it we? Who owns the Government?) get their tax revenue numbers up. There is no other way, for now.

Kenya decided to push herself towards fancy service sector businesses like IT, over proven poverty-eradicators like agribusiness. We like the benefits that have accrued, like internet is fairly cheap. But it is an epic strategic failure. If you want to bring up how it works out for India; well, India is a failure. At least, relative to their giant neighbor. You have to beat those who surround you, no?

Kenya used to be well ahead of her neighbors but complacency changed things. Ethiopia is called the next big thing over us and Kigali gets more raves than Nairobi. Tanzania believes it will catch-up soon (confidence is everything) and Uganda actually flipped the balance of trade, between us and them, in 2018.

The President of Kenya admitted some of the strategic failures that resulted into the above. One, foreign investors receive priority over small-time entrepreneurs in Kenya. They get more incentives and leeway to withdraw when fitting. Hopefully, we will rectify soon. The finance sector in Kenya learnt that you can’t get away with locking out local investors. We can now buy bonds using M-Pesa, for instance.

Entrepreneurs are also to blame

Entrepreneurs in Kenya must also shoulder some blame, although not directly. One of the reason things are as they are is public perception. This is created by those who shape opinions. I mean  collectively because individuals don’t matter. Who does this? For one, there are always those lawyers on your TV who want give their expertise in every field. Please channel, invite the lawyer to speak about water tower issues.

There are also the economists who want Kenyans to pretend that they care about public finance and other macro stuff that are way out there; the SGR books and debt renegotiations. Everyone knows that one weakness of universal suffrage is that most of us just don’t care about that stuff. Us, common folk care about the rent, food prices, fare hikes and car maintenance costs.

The furthest we go is ask why we don’t “feel” 6% economic growth. We have now internalized that we’re not supposed to “feel” such meagre growth. But let’s not be too harsh, economists are already trying so hard to make their field a science. It will never happen. Simply, the more variables you add the more difficult it becomes to have global rule unless you force assumptions. Economics is also political, not pure. Saying Kenya is mistaken to build infrastructure is a value imposition.

A party that, surprisingly, doesn’t air voice enough is entrepreneurs. KAM has come out to speak for manufacturers and BAKE has acted against Government attempt to control the internet. These are examples. But you’ll never see such actions headline anything. This is despite the fact that entrepreneurs in Kenya would give a lot by getting involved in creating public conversation.

Are entrepreneurs better than economists? Let’s not go there. All I’m sure of is that entrepreneurs are more grounded, less academic. I’m also sure that “a few coins in your pocket doesn’t make you a thought leader.”

But Kenya needs that day-to-day engagement. Business owners focus on such matters in the form of utility of goods, customer preferences and, just, how money works (finance). Perhaps, then, we would stop living anticipating the General Election. Even football fans don’t hold their breath for the World Cup. They stick to predictable European leagues in the meantime.

This way, entrepreneurs in Kenya would also come out as role models. Your work would supercede your name. Isn’t that what we all want? Many people in Kenya already believe business success has zilch to do with education. One of the reasons is that entrepreneurs are too quiet, some of them are pretty smart (hehe). Entrepreneurs in Kenya would also influence policy. How? Public conversation elects MCAs, MPs and, if we’re lucky, Governors. The Presidency is decided by campaign budget but we’ll get there.

The best platform for entrepreneurs in Kenya to speak out, from their perspective, is in shared-interest groups. Economists have think tanks, the MPs on your TV have cliques. Entrepreneurs need to see this value of working together. Kenya needs to talk about the micro-economy at a national level. You liked the unga subsidy, didn’t you?