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Is honest business still possible in Kenya?

Oct 16, 2005 Success, Sunday Nation

There is a widely accepted model of business prevalent in Kenya today. It involves some or all the following practices: evading the payment of duties and taxes wherever possible; obtaining raw materials and equipment from the cheapest sources, “no questions asked”; falsifying costs in order to justify absurdly high prices; and colluding with public officials, whether minions or ministers, to obtain preferential treatment.

This behaviour does not know scale, ethnicity or sector. Its malevolent shadow falls everywhere. We’re all at it: cheating, stealing, deceiving and corrupting. Except we don’t refer to it as that. It’s “just business” to us. We feel that business is somehow exempt from what constitutes normal moral behaviour, that we have to do “what it takes” to succeed. Why? Because you can’t be a pumbavu in business. Because that’s what everyone does. Because if we don’t do it, our competitors will race ahead of us. Because, because.

Sharp practice is everywhere, from the lowliest roadside kiosk to the mightiest industrial concern. The more we accept its presence as somehow “natural”, the more it spreads like a virus through our ranks. Many who feel something is terribly wrong in this situation are reluctant to speak up, because of the modern tendency to avoid moralising – the fear of being labelled a prude, or even worse, a bore. Well, it’s time to crank the volume up a little.

When you evade taxes you are legally obliged to pay, you are stealing from the society that sustains you and your business. It is because of you that this nation cannot feed its people. You’re already shouting as you read this: “Oh, no it isn’t – that’s the government’s fault. If I paid my taxes in full, it would just put more money in the pockets of fat cats. If I was sure there was a government that would use the money prudently and correctly, I would have no problem paying taxes.”

Ah, the old excuse so beloved of Kenyan businessmen. I’m an honest guy, but this government should not be financed to loot Kenyans. That’s why I keep two sets of books, that’s why I mess with my invoices, that’s why I don’t pay VAT. I’m sorry, folks, but you have no credibility. If you were truly concerned about the wellbeing of disadvantaged Kenyans, you would refuse to pay taxes openly. You would join campaigns to draw attention to the government’s many inadequacies. You would take collective legal action. Many have done this, and can square it with their consciences.

But to quietly cook your books out of social concern? Please, we can’t laugh that loudly, it would hurt too much. If you really meant that, here’s what you would do: you would take a sum equivalent to the taxes you don’t want to pay, and you would donate it to worthy causes of your own choice. You would directly support some of the Kenyans the government ignores. And you would do this not in the measly measure of occasional charitable contributions; you would be systematic and consistent, and your giving would be substantial. Ever come across such a Kenyan? The truth is, you evade for your own selfish ends. The inadequacy of government is merely a convenient excuse. It’s a counterfeit cloak you wrap around yourself to give the impression of virtue. You’re not fooling anyone. Your only social concern is for your own miserable self.

What about sourcing materials of dubious origins? I have encountered apparently devout Kenyans who pray fervently in the morning and then handle stolen goods during the day. Or feel not a flicker of shame when compromising a government official to “be their friend”. You can call these people shrewd and switched-on if you like; I see no difference between them and the man who points a gun at your head and steals your car. The only disparity is in the clothes and pretences that they wear, but their purpose is the same: snatching from the mouths of others. One grabs the goods, the other creates the market. Innocent people die. Is the businessman any less the murderer?

But cheats prosper in Kenya, do they not? Can we not see all the sharp-suited, smart-talking tycoons around us, who made it big by practicing precisely those things I’m decrying here? I would have to ask you: why is a street child who sniffs glue to shut out his misery and steals handbags to suppress his hunger more worthy of your contempt than a big spender whose success is based on simple theft and deception? If you can see the thief in one and not the other, what does that say about you?

The sad thing is, the economy is going nowhere when we’re all busy evading and deceiving. For one thing, we don’t learn the business skills we desperately need to. Why learn marketing and finance when plain corruption brings dividends much quicker? That is what’s retarded our business practices and kept them archaic. An economy where most players are interested in the quick, no-holds-barred buck is not one where you can expect long-term investments and innovations. What you can expect is plenty of “hot” money, plenty of capital drain and high-end property booms. Now that does sound familiar.

Before you get too envious of your larcenous classmates and their rapid rise, look behind the veil. More often than not you will find a functionally illiterate schmoozer whose only skill is to transmit the cancer of crookedness to others. You will also find a person whose eyes cannot stay still, who is perpetually worried about losing his ill-gotten gains equally quickly, who lies awake at night for fear of hearing that knock on the door.

There is karma in business, you see. There is a law of consequences. “Your acts will be returned to you, faithfully, every one”, the heroine of Alexander McCall Smith’s The Sunday Philosophy Club tells us. Those tycoons you envy will also have all their acts returned to them. They are the ones who will know what prison food tastes like, and who are likely to develop heart conditions and hypertension in their thirties. Deep inside them, they know it’s all coming back. You can see it in the fragility of their demeanour, in the lack amidst the plenty, in the tragedy of family schisms. Payback happens; it’s merely a question of when. If you still envy these people, then good luck to you.

Shouldn’t business be bigger and better than that? Which businesses do you respect and support the most? Isn’t it the vendor who always gives you the freshest vegetables at the most reasonable prices? Isn’t it the restaurant that never compromises on hygiene and always serves you with big smiles? Isn’t it the big consumer-goods producer whose quality you can always count on? Who loves those shady characters with their pretend businesses? Actually, as many long-established Kenyan companies would testify, honesty isn’t just the right thing to do; it’s also a superior business strategy. More on that theme next week.

Was the volume high enough this Sunday? It could get a whole lot louder. Listen out.

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