Two Things the 2007 Kenya Elections Taught Me About Business

I’m interrupting my “Why Entrepreneurship” series because last week’s presidential elections in Kenya brought back many memories from the 2007 election and its aftermath. Most of these memories are hard and painful, but others make me grateful for my time and experiences in Kenya and those are the ones I want to share in this post.

1. Be Ready for the Unexpected

Driving back from climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro on December 30th was one of the most frightening times in my life. The election results were supposed to be announced at any moment. We pulled into Nairobi in the late afternoon and there was no one on the streets except for a few police and military trucks. If you have ever spent any time in Nairobi, you will know this is extremely unusual.

We quickly took to the side roads because the weight of what was about to happen filled the air. All the cliches you hear about these situations were present. You could cut the tension with a knife. The silence was deafening. All this was true and we were scared and ready to be home.

The announcement would come later that night after I arrived at home. Shortly thereafter, chaos ensued. Homes were burned and people were killed. Buses were filled with people who were forced out of their homes and sent to their tribal land where many of them had never lived. The violence that took place over the next few weeks was horrific.

What about my business?

My first concern was for the safety of my staff. We made sure everyone was in a safe place and moved one family to a secure location. After this, my thoughts turned quickly to the business. I knew the next few weeks would be hard. What I didn’t expect was how hard the next three months would be.

We moved everything out of our office and into a storage space at our home. We went from working in a space close to 2,000 sq ft to a room that was maybe 100 sq ft. We scaled back our operations. We had to cut back office hours since there wasn’t much work to do. We didn’t have any clients in the two months following and only a couple in the third month. We could only pay our full-time staff and had to get creative with our part-time trainers. Our cash balances got very low but we made it.

What I learned

This situation taught me there is no way to predict what obstacles you and your business will face. Without flexibility and loyal staff who were willing to do whatever it took, there is no way the business would have survived. We had set our business up in a way that allowed us to scale up and down quickly. We did our best to hire and take care of staff who were committed to our vision and mission and would help us through this and future hard times.

2. Build a Dynamic Team

Once our staff was safe and things started to calm down in Nairobi, we let our team know it would be some time before we would have any work available for them. Two guys on our staff, Duncan and Cornel, were best friends and also members of opposing tribes. Since they were going to have time on their hands, they asked if we could help them go out and and provide food and supplies to displaced people. Not only could they meet physical needs, they knew their friendship would be a testimony to how God’s grace allowed them to be friends, even when society told them they were enemies.

We quickly put together a plan and our executive director raised funds from the US. It would have been terribly unwise for our expat staff to visit the hardest hit areas during this time, but within days, Duncan and Cornel were on the ground, giving out supplies, and sharing the source of their hope and reconciliation. While they refused to be paid through these donated funds, we were able to pay for their meals and transportation on the road, which met some of their needs, but more importantly, they were able to provide help for fellow Kenyans in desperate need.

We were blessed with an absolutely incredible staff who challenged us in so many ways. There are so many happy memories I have from our Kenyan staff that it would take days and hundreds of thousands of words to write them all down.

What I learned

The organization I worked for in college was really committed to getting the right people on the bus. They looked for people who were committed to the organization and the work they were doing. I took this mindset to heart. While I don’t always do it perfectly, I try to hire people who are a good fit and have a passion for what our business is doing.

This paid off during the 2007 elections when I needed my staff to step up. Their selfless actions provided emergency aid and also allowed them to make things work until business picked back up. They could have moved back to their homes or tried to find other jobs, but they didn’t. They appreciated the time and effort we poured into them and were ready to go when we had work for them.

I would see this happen over and over again. They learned to take initiative and find innovative solutions to problems. This isn’t something that was typically encouraged in the Kenyan workplace, but I saw my staff thrive in that environment.

I Want to Help You

While the 2007 was a very difficult time for my family, staff, and business, I learned a lot during that season. My desire is to equip you to build businesses that can weather the storms, as well as empower local staff to do incredible things. If these are goals that you have for your business, please reach out and I would love to help you get going in your expat startup.

And if you would like to check out what Duncan and Cornel are up to today, check out Care for Aids. They mobilize the church in caring both physically and spiritually for families affected by HIV/AIDS in Kenya.