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If expats are to make a success of doing business in Kenya they'll need to bring a few things to the boardroom table, as it were: patience, respect for cultural differences, tolerance of uncertainty and an ability to build personal relationships with business partners. The country achieved a ranking of 56th out of 190 countries in the World Bank's 2020 Ease of Doing Business Survey. It performed exceptionally well in protecting minority investors (1st) and getting credit (4th), but ranked poorly in starting a business (129th) and registering property (134th).
Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, foreigners who've done well working in Kenya have realised there's little that can be done to avoid the corruption and ethnic division that undermine the country's economy. For those who can get through the red tape and pitfalls, Kenya presents a dynamic business opportunity with its desire to expand the IT, e-commerce and telecoms sector and make its mark in today's digital world.
Here are some aspects of business culture to consider when working in Kenya.
English is most commonly used in business and is one of Kenya's two official languages.
8am or 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday, though banks often close earlier.
A handshake is an appropriate greeting – start with the most senior person in the group and be sure to shake hands with each person present.
Dress neatly and presentably. Dark formal suits are standard, despite the heat.
Gift-giving is a common practice in business. Note that gifts should be small and tasteful. Stationery branded with one's company logo is usually an appropriate choice. Presents are not necessarily expected in business relations, although over holiday seasons such as Christmas a gift basket on behalf of the organisation may be exchanged.
Traditionally, Kenyan culture tends to be patriarchal and the corporate environment does sometimes reflect this. That said, this is slowly changing as the country modernises.
Business culture in Kenya
Business culture in Kenya is governed by harambee, a concept involving mutual assistance, responsibility and community. Harambee also relates to Kenya's group orientation, in contrast to the individualism of Western cultures. Respect for family, community and ancestors is key.
Kenya is largely a hierarchical society in which deference to seniority is rigid and expected, and in which senior employees will seldom consult with those of lower status. Social standing is important and official titles should be included when introducing or addressing someone.
Blunt statements are best avoided as they may appear rude. Because of this, outright refusal is rare, and this can make it hard to decipher people’s true meaning or intentions. Instead, evasive or subtle remarks may indicate hesitation or disagreement. It's also important that expats control their emotions and avoid displaying anger or using profanities, especially in public settings.
Meetings generally begin on time, although there's little chance of an end time always being adhered to. Spending time on small talk is important – rushing this aspect of a meeting will leave a bad impression. The Kenyan concept of time is traditionally 'fluid', especially for social gatherings, but efficiency and punctuality are valued in business settings.
Tradition and history are greatly respected. Kenyan businesspeople have a low tolerance for risk, and decision makers tend to proceed cautiously, committing only once all information has been considered. This may take a long time and requires patience on the part of the expat businessperson.
Business success is closely connected to interpersonal success, so it's vital to invest time in getting to know potential partners and understanding their culture and background.
Dos and don’ts of business in Kenya
Don't rush greetings
Do enquire about the health and family of associates
Don't get angry or emotional about a business issue.
Do maintain a friendly tone at meetings.
Don't rush proceedings or decision making
►Working in Kenya gives an overview of the job market in the country
"The work ethic in Nairobi is fairly strong. Most people will get up at around 5am to be in the office early. They then knock off at 5pm in order to battle the traffic home." Read more on Kenya's work culture in our interview with Frances.
"Lunch is really important in many Kenyan workplaces. People are not likely to grab a sandwich and just eat at their desks. Instead, they like to spend the lunch hour sitting, eating and chatting together in a common space." Tara shares some useful tips on working in Nairobi in her expat interview.
Are you an expat living in Kenya?
Expat Arrivals is looking for locals to contribute to this guide, and answer forum questions from others planning their move to Kenya. Please contact us if you'd like to contribute.
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