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Are Kenya’s Wahindi the best at business?

There is a fable that is widely heard in Kenya. This fable has two versions, depending on who’s telling it. If it’s a Kenyan South Asian doing the recounting, then it goes like this: Kenya’s Wahindi are born business-people. Excelling at business is in their genes. They can make any venture work, and can wring a profit out of anything. Buying and selling, building conglomerates, pulling off deals? It’s all inborn. ‘These people’ are the engine behind the economy.

If you hear many black Kenyans tell the same tale, it takes a different slant. Kenya’s Wahindi are born business-people. They are ruthless exploiters and mean-spirited employers. They band together to raise capital and run their businesses as community networks, locking out everyone else. They corrupt Africans and divert resources. ‘These people’ are the biggest drain on the economy.

Which version of the fable is the myth, and which the reality? Or is it just a fable all round, a far-fetched legend that bears no resemblance to the truth, whichever version is recounted? It is time we all stopped kidding ourselves (for we all are) and tried to identify the facts about South Asian entrepreneurship in Kenya.

The success of the Muhindi entrepreneur in Kenya is not really in question. South Asians run many things: from small shops to sprawling multinationals. They own workshops and contracting firms. They build roads and control hotels. They sell lots of stuff: from bicycles to broadband; from sukuma to satellite dishes.

The ubiquity of Muhindi business is a matter of casual observation. The extent of its dominance of the economy, on the other hand, is highly exaggerated. A casual look at the ‘owners’ of big business will bear this out, as will an examination of Kenya’s ‘rich lists’. Or we could run through the country’s land ownership rolls, bearing in mind that agriculture is still the largest sector of the economy. It is the elite African families that own vast swathes of the Kenyan economy, and have done so since independence.

The Wahindi, on the other hand, provide a convenient bugbear for all to kick. ‘These people’, with their funny accents and huge families, their penny-pinching ways and their strange gods, are an easy target for everyone, from urbane politicians to calloused rabble rousers. And the more successfully they run their businesses, the more the common mwananchi is roused to complain: these people succeed because they are scrooges; they compete by being corrupt; they excel because they exclude.

Over the years, a siege mentality has taken hold in Kenya’s South Asian communities. ‘We’ feel we are hated because we are successful, so we batten down the hatches to shut out that dangerous noise. We retreat to our bunkers and keep only our kith and kin in key company positions. We are threatened with forced expropriations and expulsions, so it is only sensible to keep a foothold elsewhere.

These are the vicious circles that bedevil the economy, and keep it spinning in one place: a place where a chosen few continue to mint money, while the seething masses go only backwards. We are suspicious, unkind, mistrustful and wary. We are unable to build a nation that can take off and achieve its potential. We achieve neither critical mass nor collective strategic thought. All vision is lost in the clouds of racial, tribal and social misapprehension that we keep generating.

Such misapprehension exists because we refuse to face up to reality, and prefer to deal in legends and fables. The mythologies exist in all tribes and races in the land, and over time, we have all come to accept them as received wisdom. Here’s a quick tour: Asians are hard-working, Africans are lazy. Europeans are disciplined, every one else wallows in chaos. Africans are brave, Indians are cowards. Kikuyus have no understanding of higher education; a Luo can never run a business.

Every single one of us has encountered examples that confirm these stereotypes (that’s why they exist); but every single one of us has also encountered examples of the precise opposite. Do the counter-examples make us question the stereotype? Not a bit of it. We stubbornly stick to the myth: it seems to make life easier to understand. People must stay in their pre-ordained boxes: otherwise we’ll have to deal with Kikuyu scholars, lazy Indians, dissolute Mzungus and business-savvy Luos. Whatever next? Our hard-wired brains would explode.

But some myth-busting is needed, and it behoves South Asians to start with their own favourite myths. Like the one that claims we are the best business brains around, the most astute deal-makers, the shrewdest negotiators. Oh, really? Tell me, honestly, if you have ever encountered the following ‘animals’ in Kenya’s Muhindi business ‘jungle'(I have depicted these particular animals as male – they are almost never female):

1. The Politicians’ Friend: This is the chap whose whole business advantage is built around connections and patronage. He has little by way of schooling, and even less by way of skills. If he were asked to run a legitimate business, it would last a month. But what this man does have is the ability to connect; to schmooze; to wine and dine with the high and the mighty. He acts as the front-man, the broker, the intermediary, the in-between. Or the pimp, if you like your language more direct. His skill is to get powerful people to grant exemptions: from tax and duties, from licensing requirements, from decent business practice. He partners up with the politicians of the day, and drops their names wherever he goes. He is prone to ostentation: he will have the most showy cars, foreign bodyguards, even jets and helicopters at his disposal. He will make a career out of appearing in court, and will support a dozen lawyers and their families. Sprawling business empires have been built up this way. But can this man run a business honestly? No. His competitive advantage is corruption.

2. The One-Track Wonder: This person really cares about his business. Cares so much that he cares not a jot about anything else. Wives and children? Mere appendages, often unnecessary. Social life? Not possible, when you’re doing deals ’24-7′. Sleep? That’s when you think about the next day’s transactions. Higher thought? Now you’re kidding – is there anything higher than bottom line? This man will splash the money around: wifey will have huge shopping allowances at her disposal; kiddies will go to the best schools and will be rolling in pocket money – anything to keep them quiet. And when age catches up, this animal will not know what to do with himself: he will keep turning up at the factory, the shop or the site like a fading ghost, because all his life happens there. So will his death.

3. The Maha Miser: This one was born to save. And gather. And accumulate. And cut corners. And take shortcuts. This is the fellow who ferries all his workers to his factory in a lorry, like goats. This is the one who runs shifts round the clock and locks in the employees at night, otherwise they’d rob him blind. This is the one who employs and re-employs people as ‘casuals’ for decades to prevent them from joining unions and seeking employment benefits. He searches staff when they leave for the day. He does not provide toilet paper, let alone computers. There is no internet connection at work, because staff would undoubtedly abuse it for personal use. All envelopes received are kept and reused for sending out. Expenditure on safety features is a no-no. Waste, whether toxic or merely smelly, is tossed onto roads and into rivers. This person will accumulate a vast fortune before he’s done, but he’ll enjoy none of it by spending it: all the joy is in the gathering.

4. The Business Butterfly: Now this fellow is enterprising. Too enterprising. His brain is always buzzing with new business ideas, new ventures to try out. Each one, when conceived, is The Big One: the one that will make his name and make millions besides. The problem is, none of them ever does. The Butterfly will flit from venture to venture, trying them all out, succeeding at none. None of his wells will be drilled deep enough to actually strike oil. He will lose heart and lose interest well before a proper business is in place. Before he is through, this chap will have run an insurance company, a restaurant, an Internet firm, a video shop and half-a-dozen other things. There is no sign of these companies: they disappear into the ether as quickly as they arrive.

You have met these people, and so have I. For some of us, we are these people. See anything to be particularly proud of in that zoo? So in what sense are we, as a community, the business titans we like to proclaim we are? Some humility, please.

I am, of course, constructing caricatures. These are just good qualities taken to extremes: there’s nothing wrong with ambition, single-mindedness, thrift and the search for new enterprise. These attributes turn bad when the dial is turned too far, taken into the distortion range. That’s when mental balance is lost, and extreme behaviour takes over. It doesn’t happen often, but happen it does.

But here’s the point: there is nothing about crooks, hucksters, exploiters, sad sacks and serial failures that is inherently Muhindi. They exist in every community, every race, every society. They are more noticeably ours in Kenya because we are so widely present in business. But there are Kikuyus who push their workers to the point of abusing their basic human rights; Kambas whose minds can’t entertain a thought outside of business; white Kenyans who have a string of failed ventures behind them; and Kenyans of all shades who make a career of making connections and nothing else. They are part of the universal business menagerie: all types of fur, feathers, whoops and antics are necessary!

Out of all that activity, much of it doomed to failure, comes business success. And because of our fixation with myths and fables and self-aggrandisement, we refuse to address the fundamentals: the precise nature of that success; and the causal factors underlying it. South Asian business in Kenya, when the wheat is separated from the chaff and reality is discerned within the myth, is a success story. We did demonstrate great enterprise as this country opened up to the world. We did start strange ventures in unlikely places. We did take great risks that others were unwilling to; we did work long hours and make sacrifices that others found unacceptable.

And so we have our reward: a collection of businesses big and small, simple and complex, which stands comparison with any in the world. How did we do it, and why us? Now there’s a thesis for an enterprising student to write; a research project for a university department to undertake. All I can do is tell some stories. But within these stories are the kernels of universal truth: and if we want to this success to be built upon, replicated, repeated – we must sift out those little seeds, stack them up, and study them.

There would have to be stories about hard work in our collection: about pre-dawn starts and post-midnight stops; about families working shifts to keep the business going. We would tell the tales of enormous sacrifice: of social lives blighted and personal fulfilment forgone in order to build up the family business. We would chronicle the ambition of youngsters with little education, who used a trifling sum as start-up capital, but turned that capital over at great velocity and with great application until it became a king’s ransom. We would listen in awe to the accounts of enormous risks taken by pioneer entrepreneurs: plunging a lifetime’s savings into foolhardy ventures with no probability of success. We would note the dogged determination with which these ventures, once begun, were pursued: fighting bureaucrats, rivals, politicians and economic upheaval with equal vigour and great heart. And we would discern that family and community networks provided invaluable capital: advice, knowledge, succour, and peer pressure.

Those are the stories we should tell; and, by and large, they are true. They contain all that is good and admirable about the South Asian business record in Kenya. What is actually remarkable goes largely unnoticed: that the true success stories are stories about some rather down-to-earth qualities. Drive, discipline and ambition; not fraud, deceit and manipulation.

So it is with all entrepreneurial communities around the world; so it is with us. It could be the Chinese in Singapore, the Koreans in Los Angeles, the Kikuyu in Nairobi; the Italians in Tuscany. They put in the hours; they build the social capital; they set up odd businesses in odd places; they invest in knowledge; and most importantly, they keep it going. For decades, for generations, for lifetimes.

What is sad about the Kenyan story is that the entrepreneurial drive of the few has not led to the welfare of the many. We have not constructed an economy in which the fruits of enterprise fall far and wide, in which lessons are learned and successes are shared and repeated. We have not learned to respect the diversity we are blessed to have as a nation; nor to understand the great stories of achievement all around us.

Instead, we remain mired in mistrust, spinning myths and legends about all the wrong things. This is what all the businesspeople who washed up from the shores of South Asia all those generations ago should be saying to their fellow Kenyans: we’re not as good as we make out; but we’re better than you think we are. If we learn from that, Kenya will be the winner.

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