You must be the change you want to see
"When the hands are empty and the heart is weeping, it is easy to point accusingly at the cause of the tragedy," says David, one of the many entrepreneurs who lost their businesses at Kericho in the recent post election violence. "Despite the emptiness that I feel inside, my hands are full of problems to solve, and I have no fingers left idle to point at passersby."
The country may well be beyond violence now, but the trauma of the losses and destruction that the business community has suffered as a result might take long to heal.
"It's going to take time before I can get the confidence to restock my business to the pre-violence days. It will take even longer for me to rebuild the trust I had in my customers, some of whom I saw lead a battalion of thugs to pull down the business that I have struggled to build all my life," adds a resigned David.
Once beaten twice shy, goes an old adage. Many traders across the country share David's sentiments. Now that the social adhesive that has been holding the country together has been significantly eroded, caution has become an important factor for business survival. While this seems to work for now, self-inhibition certainly can't pass as a long term strategy for business growth.
Counting the cost of conflict
Kenya needs peace and every entrepreneur has good reason to pursue this agenda. Recent statistics show that 96% of local businesses are Micro and small - to - medium enterprises. Some of these have loans to repay, while others were looted or wiped out entirely. The recent deterioration of peace in the country has had a corrosive effect on the business environment, and many entrepreneurs have to contend with high costs of re-establishing themselves at a time when the purchasing power of their clients has declined significantly.
There has been unprecedented loss of investment and some of those making a debut into business might never try again. Destruction of roads, bridges and communication infrastructure is hindering access to markets, and this might take some time before it's brought back to normal.
In some areas, entrepreneurs are agonizing over loss of key business partners, either through death or internal politically motivated disagreements. Above all, the one month of violence has been a month of lost business opportunities across the country.
As David Cracknell, CEO of Microsave and a consultant for the Association of Micro-Finance Institutions of Kenya (AMFI) acknowledges, there was a geographical element to the crisis and this has affected some areas more than others. Nevertheless, the most important thing for entrepreneurs now is a change of mindset from where we are to where we need to be.
"People have recovered from worse tragedies elsewhere, and the Kenyan business community will recover too and grow," he adds.
As entrepreneurs in countries such as Rwanda, Uganda and Afghanistan, which have experienced worse political conflicts than Kenya eventually realized, there can never be trade in the absence of peace.
From the events of the past one month, most traders have realized that the business environment is not immune to factors outside money matters. Likewise, they have discovered that in order to safeguard their investments, they need to urgently address factors such as biases in their recruitment practices, as well as disparities in staff remuneration. Jobless youths or underpaid staffs are emerging as possible causes of discontentment in many businesses.
Our human nature has formed a strong desire in us to see an end to the suffering of the people affected by the violence in various parts of the country. For the business community, some of the earliest signs of relief came when AMFI, through its chair person, Ann Mutahi, declared that all its constituent micro-finance institutions would work out assistance program for their clients who had fallen victim to the violence.
Another ray of light shone when Cooperative Insurance Company (CIC) declared that it was going to compensate all the victims who had taken insurance covers with the company. "We are ready to pay all claims that fall within insurance terms, based on the policy the client had. Our policies do not have small prints that exempt us from paying claims resulting from political risks," assured Nelson Kuria, managing director of CIC at a news conference in Nairobi.
Finally, the Government, through the trade Permanent Secretary, David Nalo, said it was setting up a fund to assist businesses in the violence hit areas as part of the program to resettle the internally displaced persons (IDPs).
Likewise, as a member of the community within which your business operates, you have a moral obligation to bring to an end the suffering of your community.
Granted, some of its members might have abetted crime and destruction of property in your area, but the solution to the problem cannot come by keeping off each other. As the late Mahatma Gandhi, the renowned Indian political and spiritual leader said, "You must be the change you want too see in the world".
In other words, you can convert the 'hostile' communities around you into better partners or customers if you change how you perceive them. This is one of the biggest challenges that we must overcome both at the personal and national levels.
As an entrepreneur interacting with customers from different ethnic communities on a daily basis, you have an inevitable role to play in re-establishing trust across the divide and mending the social fabric.
As Aleke Dondo, CEO of K-Rep Development Agency sees it, MFIs that lend to individuals and small businesses will also play a great role in empowering low income earners to once again take control of their own lives.
"Most of local MFIs have groups that meet on a regular basis. Such can be used as forums to promote peaceful co-existence among members from different ethnic communities. This is, of course, in addition to their primary role of offering affordable credit to their clients," he adds.
The number of ways in which SMEs can participate in building peace are countless. For instance, forming a business association and partnering with stakeholders such as NGOs and faith based organisations in your local area could afford you a good platform to start peace negotiations with local elders and leaders from the 'hostile' community. Such an association would also create an important forum where the business community can discuss key issues such as security, creation of jobs for the idle youths, lobbying for governance reforms, as well as organising joint corporate social responsibility activities.
This will help in not only creating a friendly business environment, but also make the local community feel as important partners in facilitating growth of trade in their local area. What's more, it will help in reducing the feelings of alienation among the local community where you operate.
While micro and small enterprises can not rival the muscle of non-governmental organizations, the media or the UN to sensitize the public on the negative effects of conflicts and on the need for peaceful co-existence in the country, they can however, be among the most efficient channels through which the peace message can by honed to the people at the grassroots, albeit on a daily basis.
First published in SMEs Today Magazine, Nairobi, Feb 2008.