Doing Business in Kenya

Doing business in Kenya can be a very pleasant experience because of how polite and well mannered Kenyans are, but there are a few things to be kept in mind as a foreign business executive. First, never go for a free and frank communication in Kenya, never make your point too bluntly or too honestly, particularly if your comments are in any way critical or damning. THE Kenyan society is very particular about “loss of face” – here being criticized by a foreigner in public can be the worst humiliation possible.

Kenya, officially the Republic of Kenya, is a country in Africa and a founding member of the East African Community (EAC). Its capital and largest city is Nairobi. Kenya’s territory lies on the equator and overlies the East African Rift covering a diverse and expansive terrain that extends roughly from Lake Victoria to Lake Turkana (formerly called Lake Rudolf) and further south-east to the Indian Ocean. It is bordered by Tanzania to the south and southwest, Uganda to the west, South Sudan to the north-west, Ethiopia to the north and Somalia to the north-east. Kenya covers 581,309 km2 (224,445 sq mi), and had a population of approximately 48 million people in January 2017.

Kenya has a warm and humid tropical climate on its Indian Ocean coastline. The climate is cooler in the savannah grasslands around the capital city, Nairobi, and especially closer to Mount Kenya, which has snow permanently on its peaks. Further inland are highlands in Central and Rift Valley regions where tea and coffee are grown as cash crops which are major foreign revenue earners. In the West are Nyanza and Western regions, there is an equatorial, hot and dry climate which becomes humid around Lake Victoria, the largest tropical fresh-water lake in the world. This gives way to temperate and forested hilly areas in the neighbouring western region.

The north-eastern regions along the border with Somalia and Ethiopia are arid and semi-arid areas with near-desert landscapes. Kenya is known for its world class athletes in track and field and rugby. Thanks to its diverse climate and geography, expansive wildlife reserves and national parks such as the East and West Tsavo National Park, Amboseli National Park, Maasai Mara, Lake Nakuru National Park, Aberdares National Park and white sand beaches at the Coastal region, Kenya is home to the modern safari and has several world heritage sites such as Lamu and a number of beaches, including in Diani, Bamburi and Kilifi, where international yachting competitions are held every year.

Yes, you should make your point, and make it clearly so, but not in public, only in a private conversion or through an intermediary. The bluntness of an American business executive, a style which has been incorporated in modern business won’t take you far in Kenya. Here, make your point softly, without causing any offence or display of impatience, anger or irritation.

Kenya’s services sector, which contributes 61% of GDP, is dominated by tourism. The tourism sector has exhibited steady growth in most years since independence and by the late 1980s had become the country’s principal source of foreign exchange. Tourists, the largest number being from Germany and the United Kingdom, are attracted mainly to the coastal beaches and the game reserves, notably, the expansive East and Tsavo West National Park 20,808 square kilometres (8,034 sq mi) in the southeast.

The importance of diplomacy in a business relationship in Kenya cannot be emphasized enough by us. Diplomacy must be reflected in your conversation style – you must speak softly here, not loudly or forcefully.

Kenyans are too polite to say so themselves, but it is more than likely that foreign business executives who display a “loud” behavior will be criticized in the background and since the Kenyan business community is so small, word spreads pretty fast. Loud or brash foreign executives are avoided and they could as well wave their prospects of doing business in Kenya goodbye.

You should try to tricks Kenyans use to make their point – using metaphors, stories, presenting hypothetical situations and so on. By doing so, you make your point without causing much hurt or appearing demeaning or insulting.

Also, never display anger or impatience in a business meeting in Kenya, even though you feel you have every right to do so. Kenyans resent angry people because they are such a soft culture, and equate anger with mental instability. Emotional control is very important in Kenya and is one of the characteristic hallmarks of senior business executives in the country.

In fact, Kenyans go out of their way not to insult or hurt other people, they try their level best not to appear as being critical. That’s why it is only fair that you treat them just the same way and be as nice and polite to them as they are to you.

While greeting Kenyans, have a crisp but firm handshake. Kenyans don’t expect a long handshake if they hardly know you, but if you get to know someone well, it’s okay to have longer handshakes. While shaking hands with Kenyan female business executives, wait for them to make the first move rather than initiate the handshake yourself. Some Kenyan female executives would rather nod politely than offer a handshake.

Be deferential to those who are either senior in age or in position. Avoid direct eye contact while greeting senior executives in Kenya – that is seen as being impolite. There is no particular ritual about exchanging business cards here, but it is advisable to present your business card to the senior most executive first.

During business meetings, don’t get to the point directly. Exchange small talk about weather, sports and global politics, and only then, after a measure of comfort has been established, talk about business. It’s important for the host to know you, be comfortable with you, before he talks business with you.

In 2007, the Kenyan government unveiled Vision 2030, an economic development programme it hopes will put the country in the same league as the Asian Economic Tigers by the year 2030. In 2013, it launched a National Climate Change Action Plan, having acknowledged that omitting climate as a key development issue in Vision 2030 was an oversight. The 200-page Action Plan, developed with support from the Climate & Development Knowledge Network, sets out the Government of Kenya’s vision for a ‘low carbon climate resilient development pathway’. At the launch in March 2013, the Secretary of the Ministry of Planning, National Development and Vision 2030 emphasised that climate would be a central issue in the renewed Medium Term Plan that would be launched in the coming months. This would create a direct and robust delivery framework for the Action Plan and ensure climate change is treated as an economy-wide issue.

Kenyan business community has a plenty of people of Indian origin, so it would help quite a lot of you are familiar with Indian culture as well. Kenyan business community is very traditional, very conservative, not given to displays of flashiness or aggression – this should be kept in mind always while doing business here.

Kenya’s various ethnic groups typically speak their mother tongues within their own communities. The two official languages, English and Swahili, are used in varying degrees of fluency for communication with other populations. English is widely spoken in commerce, schooling and government. The majority of Kenyans are Christian (83%), with 47.7% regarding themselves as Protestant and 23.5% as Roman Catholic of the Latin Rite. The Presbyterian Church of East Africa has 3 million followers in Kenya and the surrounding countries.

This article is a part of our ongoing series on “Doing Business in Africa”. Our goal is to inform people about the right way to form a business partnership with local business partners in the vast African continent, and to offer a better understanding of the business culture and etiquette followed in that part of the world. The intention is to ensure that you are comfortable and know what to expect during a business negotiation with a business partner in Africa. Please send us your suggestions on how we may help to serve you better. Ciao!