(Entrepreneurial Adventures in Africa)
Today I drove to Ndunyun-Njeru with 3 of our agribusiness partners. It’s about two to three hours outside of Nairobi, depending on what speed you were comfortable with. Personally, I prefer to take it easy on these roads. We were going to buy a truckload of potatoes, and we were going to buy them directly from the farmers. Yes, we were going to cut out the middleman and take our money straight to the hardworking source.
We got into our comfy Landcruiser with the no-nonsense UN plates, bought ourselves a few drinks and other things for the journey, and we hit the road with Bob lilting away about the natural mystic blowing in the air. We had only high hopes for our business model. We were going to start a collective for the small farmers, help them get to market easier by sharing the transportation costs. If we could only show them that they would make more if they came together. We would put our money on it, and show them how to do it. The community would be much better for it. We expected that first round was going to be a sacrifice, and we knew it was well worth the risks.
So we set out around 11am. Would have been earlier, but well, this is Africa. Flexibility is the key to stress management here. Our partners came from the ‘burbs on the other side of Nairobi, and we took a few minutes to catch up, decide on which ride to take, whose driver was going to drive which vehicle. And since I’m being honest here, let me say that we women ALREADY had these basics sorted out before the meeting. But men must be bosses. We stood quietly by and watched Bwana(s) give the instructions over again, consider switching a few details over, then change their minds – finally arriving at our earlier decisions. We kept quiet about it, enjoying our victories silently, and considering the delay a very small price to pay. African women have kept the peace this way for centuries. Do I hear an Amen?
At about the halfway point to our 2 hour destination, someone suggested ‘lunch along the way’. We knew a nyama-choma place at Engineer (yes, there is a town called Engineer in Kenya). Now I am going to try explaining the concept of nyama-choma to people outside of the Kenyan community. You see, every year an unimaginable amount of goat meat and mutton is slow-grilled and enjoyed with kechumbari – a salad of fresh tomatos, onions, chillies and cilantro. Little ‘joints’ dot the popular areas offering different combinations of nyama-choma with ugali (think slices of cornmeal cake). It’s a crime to come to Kenya and NOT share a tray of nyama-choma and something. Washed down with a Tusker baridi. I had to learn the Swahili word for ‘cold’ when I first arrived in Kenya. You must understand that at some point in my career, it was my job to make sure that my brand of beer was available at the perfect sub-zero temperature. No consumer wanted a warm beer if they could help it. But here is a market where beer is offered warm by default in many places. I still don’t understand how Kenyans acquire the taste for swallowing hot beer. But I digress.
We stopped at Engineer at acquired enough nyama-choma to feed a small army. We took a few minutes to say “we are coming” to some relatives right next door to the choma joint. It was impolite not to stop and chat a little. You could say we took about an hour from stop and restart. So we arrived at our little mountain town destination well-fed and quite drowsy. The sun had reached the height of its punishment, and the trees didn’t do much at that elevation. Hats came out, and sunglasses were adjusted delicately. For some of us, the stares were not unusual and we had come to not be aware of them. In my funny bone, I could hear the conversations at people’s dinner gatherings tonight. “Ehhhh, did you see the wazungus buying warus today?” Some evenings, when we didn’t return to the city, the ‘younger generation’ would come hang out with us. We would light a big fire and swap stories with our Maasai warriors. So I knew the stares were not toxic. We were good people doing God’s good work. And we had friends amongst these people.
We picked up our local agric expert, a tired-looking middle aged man with a battered jacket and laminated credentials. We were the biggest news since he couldn’t remember, and he was going to take us to the actual farmers. It was good to see people who really wanted to help. We knew where we wanted to begin. Just up the dirt road was an old woman. I knew her from our earlier trips. She had two cows and I would sometimes see her walking back towards her homestead with them in tow. They seemed to follow her without question and she always waved at the car. I had learned to speak the customary greeting to elders as I passed. It always tickled them to hear me say Kikuyu words in my strange accent. So I knew Mama Paul quite well. I knew she had potatoes coming out this week, and she would be preparing for the middlemen to pick them up for a small fraction of the market price.
She straightened from the potato digging just as the wheels came to stop by her rough wood gate. She came to the fence and told me in stringy English that her grandson had come to help her with the harvesting. And he had brought his ‘gal’. I told by her while the men went to inspect her potatoes. I nodded towards her new granddaughter and made the sign for babies. She giggled and winked. “Yes, yes. Moana. Baby. Muno. Plenty!”
Mama Paul’s acre had yielded less than four 100kilogram bags so far. And they were quite small. When we put them through our sorters, we would get maybe two and a half to three bags of commercial sized potatoes. It broke my heart to see the expectation in her eyes as she told me she wanted 300 shillings more per bag. I knew she expected me to bargain, but I didn’t have it in me. That was $3 in four places, for an old woman who saw me as the difference between plain old githeri (boiled beans and corn) and meat for dinner. $12 for an old woman whose grandchild had to come help with harvesting a poorly performing patch of potatoes. With a lover who was willing to work the land with him. It was not much different at the other small farms. People came from other towns to help their mostly elderly female relatives at harvest time. This labor was unpaid and rewarded with nothing but love – and some shared food.
By the time we left Mama Paul’s, I had learned my most important lesson for the day. That a meaningful investment has to be more than mere potato-worths of pity. That where love grows, surely there hope also lives. That if Mama Paul could be assured of a good education and better future for her expected great-grand babies; if the next generation could grow to learn efficient management of resources; and apply that knowledge at home. I could be wrong, but that would be a good place to start. Today I learned that not every investment is to be calculated in monetary terms. And not every business model can obey the rules of our African reality.
In another world, I would have enough funds to inject directly into Mama Paul’s business. In another world, we would be able to reach and teach all the Mama Pauls across Africa. In another world, we would have the resources to show how irrigation and manuring can be done differently. In another world, the roads would be good enough to bring higher-paying buyers all the way to her doorstep. And we all would benefit from it. In another world, we would not even have to. Because someone would have done all that already.
Funke Michaels is an MIT Sloan Fellow, a Harvard Mason Fellow, and co-founder of the MIT Africa Investment Forum. Nigerian-by-birth and Kenyan-by-marriage, she also heads marketing and strategic communications at Burhani Engineers, an innovation-focused organization working across 16 markets in East and Central Africa.