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February 20, 2019

Entrepreneurs need more support to grow and thrive

Customers queue outside an M-Pesa shop in Nairobi
Customers queue outside an M-Pesa shop in Nairobi

Kenya is preparing to co-host the Global Entrepreneurship Summit in partnership with the government of USA in the next two months on July 25 to 26. The summit which will be held in Nairobi is the sixth annual meet. The first GES was held in Washington DC in 2010. Subsequent summits were held in Turkey, United Arab Emirates, Malaysia and Morocco. This will be the first time the summit takes place in sub-Saharan Africa.

So it is quite an honour for the country to be chosen as a co-host to the summit. The idea of GES was launched in 2009 by President Barack Obama during his first visit to Africa in Cairo, Egypt. The purpose is to elevate entrepreneurship on the global agenda and inspire a new generation of innovators to choose entrepreneurship as a profession. It was also meant to inspire governments, business leaders and international organisations to invest in the empowerment of entrepreneurs with the skills and resources necessary to compete and thrive in the 21st Century.

Perhaps closer to the heart of most Kenyans and more important is the fact that President Obama will be in attendance. While respecting President Obama as a US citizen by birth, Kenyans lay claim to him by virtue of his late father being Kenyan. It is therefore no surprise, having waited for six years for this homecoming, that the visit creates such excitement.

Regardless of the presidential ties and excitement, Kenya is home to growing innovation and entrepreneurship and is recognised as the economic leader in Eastern Africa. The home grown MPESA money transfer product and microfinance brands such as Equity Bank are testimony that Kenyans have the potential to innovate. Kenya will not only showcase these success stories, but also hopefully discuss ways of strengthening entrepreneurial infrastructure and space even in the informal sector.

In fact, entrepreneurship and innovation in the informal sector is emerging as the driving force of the economy. More jobs are now created by the informal sector compared with the formal sector, building a strong case for more investment in support of entrepreneurs both for start-ups and early growth. Besides, several global celebrated entrepreneurs started their business in informal settings, with renowned names such as Sir Richard Branson of the Virgin brand starting in a church and Mark Zuckerberg founding Facebook from a college dormitory.

It is therefore befitting that as we prepare to co-host the entrepreneurship summit we celebrate the entrepreneurs amongst us, both big and small.

Take for instance the furniture makers and metal fabricators along Ngong Road. The number of items made in this place has grown and also new product designs are emerging. The blending of wood and metal products has provided a whole new avenue for innovation. Metal doors, previously made as mere sheets of metal have given way to eye-catching wood and metal security doors that can take pride of place in the front door of any upmarket home. Equally eye-catching is the varied designs of gates, with unlimited design options. The many vehicles parked on the roadside on a daily basis are testimony that something good is happening here. Business is thriving along Ngong Road and its clear a substantial amount of money changes hands every day in this place.

More important is the impact on households that are supported by these businesses; children are fed, sheltered, clothed and educated. Families are given hope and an escape route from poverty and its statistics.

Even the recent rains in Nairobi have done little to dampen the spirits of these entrepreneurs. However, amidst the thriving small businesses is now a place stewed in mad, stagnant water ponds and sewage water along clogged drainage trenches. Customers have to wade through this filth to buy the beautifully crafted furniture. It takes real courage.

And yet we all appreciate a good environment. The entrepreneurs on Ngong Road would appreciate conducting business in a clean environment. Many would-be customers may admire the furniture from the comfort of their cars but would not venture into the businesses because of the unwelcoming environment. Supporting these entrepreneurs by providing a clean environment is among the basic support that can serve to increase the number of customers for the small businesses. The promotion of entrepreneurship will involve not only cultivating empathy for small businesses, but actively seeking to support them.

A recent visit to a microfinance institution in Gikomba market brought to fore the neglect that entrepreneurs endure. Access to the largest informal market in the country is virtually non-existent. The advice given was to park my car in the city centre and pick a taxi because there was no definite way of giving directions and secondly because access amidst the crowd of people and push-carts would be a near impossible task. Second advice was to leave my handbag because of security reasons. I did leave my car at a hotel parking in Ngara and picked a taxi. Faced with the option of leaving my handbag in the car or going with it, I concluded in either case security was not assured and retaining it with me was the lesser evil and proceeded for my visit. Eventually, after detouring towards Thika Road and making several turns, we reached Gikomba market teaming with human activity one and a half hours later. Eventually I arrived at my appointment with my handbag closely held and silently thanked God and prayed I would survive the stress of the day.

I learnt from my host a bust sewer line had blocked the road from the Central Business District for a while, making access to the market even harder. The market transacts businesses worth millions on a daily basis and would sure do with more attention from the city fathers.

The story is no different for Wakulima or City Markets and most other business areas occupied by the country’s entrepreneurs in the informal sector. As we prepare to co-host the entrepreneurship summit, we can take this opportunity to demonstrate that we appreciate entrepreneurship and innovation and its contribution to economic progress, even in the informal sector. Providing basic infrastructure would be a good starting point.

Karen Kandie is a Financial & Risk Consultant with First Trident Capital and a PhD Candidate in Finance at Catholic University of Eastern Africa. [email protected]

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