Business in Kenya: World of Opportunities

Kenya is widely known as the cradle of life, being one of the oldest sites for human habitation. Located in East Africa, Kenya today has a strong agricultural economy and its capital Nairobi is a regional commercial hub. However, many Singaporeans do not know much about Kenya, and are hesitant to venture over there due to the less-than-stellar media coverage on the country.

Ganesan Ramasubramanian, a Singaporean Indian, went to Kenya on business in 2014, working for the Africa branch of his trading company, Tri Star. Tri Star Electronics Pte Ltd is a Singaporean based company specialising in the distribution of electronic products in Africa.

Ganesan, a father of one, was looking for job opportunities after resigning from his old job in Singapore. After being a stay-at-home dad for a year, he wanted to continue working again, but job openings were scarce. Hearing of an opportunity in Kenya, he decided to give it a chance, and packed his bags. 6 months later, he continues to work in Kenya in a managerial position. Although Kenya has recently been plagued with civil unrest and attacks by extremist groups, Ganesan is steadfast in his decision to continue working in the country.IMG_2911courtesy of Ganesan
 Ganesan spending time with his family

Conversing with him over Skype, the 59-year old explains his work in Kenya and how life is different there compared to Singapore.

“Coming to a different country alone without any friends or relatives can be physically and emotionally taxing,” he mentions. Alone at first, Ganesan had to adjust quickly in his new environment, learning about the Kenyan culture. There are several tribes in Kenya, the most well-known being the Kikuyu tribe which Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta hails from. Although most people in Nairobi can speak English, Kenyans from rural areas are less fluent and prefer to use their tribe’s native language. Fortunately, Ganesan was able to use English to communicate with most of the people in Nairobi. “The locals speak very fluent English, even the beggars on the streets,” he mentions.

Kenya gained independence in 1963, and declared itself a republic in 1964. Schools in Kenya currently teach English due to being a former British colony and it is widely spoken in commerce and government. On his first day of his new job, Ganesan expected to be treated like an outsider, but to his surprise, they were extremely nice to him, and offered to teach him more about Kenya and their way of life. Although some were hesitant as he was the manager and they had to answer to a newcomer, but in his words, “there was always a sense of mutual respect being carried around”. He also felt that there was less pressure working in Kenya compared to Singapore, as everyone was very laid back and relaxed. “Singaporeans are always rushing to and fro, in Kenya, everyone takes their life one step at a time.”

Although Kenya is considered to be the regional hub of Africa and its most advanced economy, privileges we are used to such as hot water are rare and Internet access is limited. Regardless, Ganesan has no complaints living in Kenya. Accommodation is dirt cheap, and the locals are warm and inviting. Compared to Singapore, Kenya’s weather is very similar as well. In fact, Ganesan prefers the weather over in Kenya over Singapore’s humid climate.

IMG_2910courtesy of Ganesan
Ganesan with his wife before leaving for Kenya

Working in Kenya has also given Ganesan a look at how the world works from a different perspective. In Singapore, people work based on a system of meritocracy, where people are rewarded based on the amount of work they put in, and our working style is very cosmopolitan. In Kenya, business is done by harambee, a concept based on mutual assistance and community, unlike the individualism Western work culture is known for. Ganesan mentions, “Seniority and hierarchy are very much rigid and respected, and managers rarely consult employees or those of a lower status. Most of the workers adopted a wait-and-see approach on the first day of work, and I tried my best to appear approachable to them.”


A store in a Nairobi local market

When mentioning Kenya however, it is impossible to not address the elephant in the room. Kenya has been the target of several terrorist attacks, with one on the Westgate Shopping Mall in December 2013 and the most recent being an attack on Garissa University, which left 148 dead, many of them Kenya’s best and brightest. The attacks were mostly anti-Christian in nature, and being a Christian, Ganesan was advised to hide his religion when he first arrived. However, with the tightening of security and the counterterrorism bill issued by President Kenyatta, Ganesan is confident that Nairobi is safe for locals and tourists, although it will take some time for the dust to settle. “There was definitely hostility towards Christians, but I’d say most of it is ignorance on the part of the locals. Most attacks were anti-Christian in nature, but affected people of every religion, so some misunderstood emotions towards Christianity is to be expected.” he explains.

“I came to Kenya for business and I feel there is a lot of undiscovered potential here, in terms of technology, tourism and infrastructure. For tourism, there are several beautiful safaris, and I think it’s a sharp contrast from the metropolis we live in. It’s a beautiful country, but not many people know it.”



Zebras roaming freely in the Kenyan safari

When asked what advice he had for Singaporeans who are interested in exploring Kenya, Ganesan said, “Go to Kenya and see it for yourself, instead of hearing what people or the media says. It’s really different from what I expected, and you should go over there and form your own opinions about the country, and decide for yourself whether you want to go back.”

Africa as a continent is commonly thought of as being a region of turmoil and poverty, largely due to its past political strife and recent tragedies in Kenya. However, Ganesan believes most of us city folk will come to enjoy the peace and nature Kenya is less known for, compared to the urban jungle we live in.