Cultural Differences – Kenya

Kenya unites around 40 ethnic groups (Bantu (65 percent), among which are Kikuyu (20 percent), Luhya (14 percent), Kamba (11 percent)) and Nilots (approx. 30 percent), among which are Luo (13 percent), Kalenjin (12 percent), Massai (1.6 percent) and others) as well as a large number of immigrant Indians, Pakistanis, Arabs and Chinese. This multi-ethnic society is strongly patriarchal, and tribal elders lead the various clans and subclans in an authoritarian manner that also permeates the corporate world. So the saying “Tell me where you come from and I’ll tell you what you think” applies almost universally – an individual’s opinion is strongly influenced by the guiding authority of their place of origin. Therefore, you will always come across highly hierarchical structures with dominant executives in Kenyan companies. Having one’s own opinion is alien to Kenyan employees.

Who calls the shots, the boss or the clan?

As a foreign manager in Kenya, it is imperative to take into account the ethnic differences along which teams should be formed and where people’s loyalties actually lie both inside and outside the company. This is not always obvious at first glance. For Kenyans, ethnicity creates identity and can therefore not simply be dismissed to fit in with corporate structures. Family and clan obligations are almost always more important than loyalty to the employer. Moreover, the gap between rich and poor in Kenya is huge and causes a huge gap between top management and employees on a lower level.

There are many truths

The fact that things are often more complex than they appear to be is also evident in the Kenyan communication style. Kenyans will seldom let themselves be nailed down to an unambiguous yes. The actual answer to a question is usually somewhere in between as definite no would be extremely rude. Instead, people like to guess what the other person would like to hear, and this is the answer that will be given. Asking questions does not necessarily get you anywhere in Kenya, because you can never rely on the answers. Things are never spelled out but are approached slowly and carefully with rather vague statements of an approximate truth.

If I don’t come today, I’ll come tomorrow

If you have ever done business in Africa, you must have come across “African time”. “If I don’t come today, I’ll come tomorrow – or the day after tomorrow.” Time and punctuality are of little importance in Kenya. People do not plan much into the future but live more in the present. This is basically due to a serene attitude coupled with a strong belief in fatalism. Kenyans are intimately acquainted with extreme poverty as well as the forces of nature. Things can change in a blink of an eye. Therefore, every day must be taken as it comes and planning for the future makes little sense. Instead, people have learned to react to the unforeseen with a great talent for improvisation.

It’s all a question of who you know

In a changing environment with strong group orientation, it is essential to cultivate and nurture contacts as well as personal relationships. Without a network, you are nobody in Kenya. That is why it is essential for business success to be regularly present on site. Telephone and email communication can only serve to bridge periods of absence. Otherwise, you will quickly become “out of sight, out of mind.” So be sure to regularly invite your Kenyan business partners to one of the many luxury restaurants to show your personal appreciation. Business between Europeans and Kenyans is also promoted in some business-oriented clubs.

Status symbols – from food to the Mercedes star

Good food is important, as Kenyans want to demonstrate their success by serving a lot of food to their foreign business partners. Praise the food if you are invited. Don’t shy away from costs if you want to return the favor with a counter-invitation. And don’t be surprised if people comment on your figure in a friendly way. Those who have a few curves to show off are considered to be eating well because they are wealthy and successful. Being thin in Kenya is neither the ideal of beauty to strive for nor is it proof of fitness.

In the same vein, brand-name clothing and other status symbols are extremely important. People wear expensive clothes in business life, even if they actually would not be able to afford them. One of the most valuable status symbols is the Mercedes star. Accordingly, talking about “cars” can open doors for your business projects.

Relaxed small talk to build relationships

Practice your skills in small talk, because people will not only want to get to know you as a potential business partner, but also on a more personal level. In Kenya, people only do business with personal contacts, not with strangers. So make sure that you don’t remain a stranger. However, please limit your small talk to innocuous topics. Under no circumstances should you try to discuss political or religious views. Respect for and interest in the local culture, however, will earn you brownie points.

Negotiations on equal terms

Once the relationship has been successfully established, you can start negotiations. Make sure you to keep your Kenyan counterparts on an equal footing. The same rules apply for negotiations as for meetings and discussions in general: Do not approach your objective directly. In Kenya, people beat about the bush a lot during conversation. A cautious approach with vague statements is common. It is only slowly, bit by bit, that the whole mosaic is put together and your Kenyan business partners will enter into an agreement.

If you have to deal with a more protracted issue, make sure to plan plenty of buffer time and always be flexible. Renegotiations are commonplace as well. Kenyans react to changing external circumstances with equanimity and a talent for improvisation – such things can neither be laid down in plans nor in contracts. On the contrary, it is always assumed that both parties will be loyal to each other and will work together to solve a problem. To insist on a contractual clause is more than counterproductive. Your Kenyan associates will lose their trust in you and your business relationship will end badly.

There are three golden rules to keep in mind when dealing with any conflicts: 1. Make sure to always save your counterpart’s face; don’t make accusations and try to lay blame on the other party. 2. Always remain constructive and open to creative solutions from your Kenyan partners. 3. Use your network to solve problems.

Only by following these rules will you be able to do business successfully in Kenya in the long term.

Katrin Koll Prakoonwit 

+49 (0)711 722 468 44
Cookie Consent with Real Cookie Banner