A tradition of entrepreneurialism in Kenya

When Amber Strong was asked to support a Futures Entrepreneurship Centre research commission in Kenya, she couldn't have imagined she’d find herself in the midst of a Maasai warrior initiation ceremony. Camping in bare shrubland, amid a thousand tribesmen and women, Amber was afforded a remarkable perspective on Kenyan society – and the way in which it is moving.

Amber Strong

“This type of event only happens every seven to ten years,” Amber says. “Boys aged 8-14 walk for up to six days to reach the ceremony where they’ll dance and undertake trials in order to become men. And as we watched this incredible spectacle, it dawned on us that it may not happen again on this scale because of how the traditional way of life is changing for many Maasai.”

Evidencing that change was a key aspect of the trip, supporting an ongoing project with Comic Relief and the Farm Shop Trust in Kenya (and part-funded by the Seale-Hayne Educational Trust), which aims to help around 100,000 farming households out of poverty in Kiambu County and adjacent areas.

Over a six-week period, Amber, a Network Advisor in Entrepreneurship, two students – Liam Moore (IT) from Plymouth, and Morwenna Roberts (Horticulture) from Duchy College – and Claire Reigate, an animal health expert from Duchy, were asked to assess the progress of the work being done to support farmers through better farm shop infrastructure.

“Kenya is a country with tremendous potential, incredible entrepreneurial spirit, and hard-working people, but not necessarily the infrastructure to support it all,” Amber says. “This is the case with farming, where farmers are now increasingly targeting ‘cash crops’ rather than growing a variety for their own needs. But when they go to farm shops for supplies, they can encounter issues such as lack of stock, and poor or even incorrect labelling.”

Working with the students, Amber interviewed farmers and Farm Shop Trust franchisees across a wide area of Kiambu, and developed case studies from this data. She conducted a focus group with female franchisees, assessed the organisation’s supply chain, and developed a list of minimum requirements for a shop assistant training programme.

“Overall, we found that the Farm Shop Trust model was working well, particularly the agricultural and horticultural training and demonstration days for farmers.” Amber says. “But because they are in this rapid growth phase, there have been issues around stock and supply, with the organisation struggling to keep up with the number of new franchises opening up. And in a country where vets’ fees are so expensive, it is absolutely vital that the farm shop assistants have advanced product knowledge and good communication skills so that they can provide the expert advice needed on whether, for example, a certain type of seed is right for a customer’s soil.”

This issue was summed up by an interview Amber conducted with a 26-year-old farmer, Peter, who attended a supply demonstration and revealed his frustration at the current set-up.

She says: “As long as he had water, he could produce 5,000 cabbages per month, with three times the number of growing cycles as we have in the UK. But he found that the farm shops were catering more for those farmers who buy small packs of seeds or fertilisers on a weekly basis, rather than the sort of bulk quantities needed for the scale of his operation. And that one moment really spoke volumes for how farming in Kenya is changing and the challenges that brings.”

Amber wrote weekly blog articles on the support and free training that the Farm Shop Trust provides to farmers and franchisees, and taught three staff how to write blog articles and use WordPress so that the work could be carried on once she’d left. She also helped to coordinate development of the organisation’s website.

And it was towards the end of the project that the opportunity arose to visit the Maasai ceremony, located within the Olakirimatian group ranch near the town of Magadi. Driving six hours from their base in Nairobi, Amber, Claire and Morwenna camped on land belonging to the host of the event, and spent three days observing – and participating in – some of the festivities. And Amber now has a special memento of the visit, after she was presented with a traditional shuka cloth, the ceremonial sheet that is wrapped around the shoulders.

“The trip to Kenya has resonated on a personal level,” Amber reflects. “It is very important to realise and experience just how many diverse ways of life there are and how each is important. The Maasai living within the boundaries of the Olakirimatian group ranch in Kenya offer a remarkable insight into the impact of culture on entrepreneurial behaviour – old and new socio-economic systems living side by side, and we were there in the middle of it.”

The University has been involved with ongoing research in Kenya, led by Dr Robert Newbery of the Faculty of Business. Much of this work has looked at the changing culture of the Maasai and their entrepreneurial behaviour.