I stood in the middle of a crowded street, people weaving past me, their bags occasionally bumping into me as they hurried past. Around me chatter in Swahili from families and couples doing their shopping. I can hear the occasional vendor singing his inventory to attract customers. To the left of me, a man selling knives breaks into a demonstration for a woman and tells her, “Nothing sharper than this madam.” I could spend all week watching the people on Tom Mboya Street. Describing how every person is the heart of a business transaction, how the smart talking salesman can sway a person going about their chores and magically turn them into a satisfied customer when they never even knew the product they bought existed this morning.
To make this story make sense, I need to tell you a little about me. I’m in love with entrepreneurship. I’ve loved every chance to study it during my MBA program. From the International Field Seminar trips to London and Tel Aviv, to networking with founders and advising participants in accelerators and incubators, to classes on how to be an entrepreneur, investment rounds and venture capitalists, I have loved EVERY WORD spoken about Entrepreneurship during my studies, which since we are based in one of the best tech start-up cities is A LOT!! Unfortunately, I’d begun to associate all start-ups with technology. And even worse, I was beginning to frame successful entrepreneurship with models based in developed countries, I was beginning to think that a business that doesn’t disrupt an industry, or one that isn’t supported by government and infrastructure had no hopes of being successful. Till I was standing in Mboya Street. Something that at first looked so foreign and chaotic, began to look passionate, organized when instead of dismissing it, I used my training to I look at it from the business perspective. I could spend all day talking about the beauty of doing business in the underground economy and how elegant, delicate and endearing entrepreneurship is in Africa but today I want to tell you about my journey to Kiambu.
I’m only on Tom Mboya Street to catch a matatu to Kiambu. In case you haven’t been to Nairobi, look at the picture, (taken from my very terrible phone and Google).
The roads are filed with matatus. These small minibuses are public transport. They are a private industry. While matatus get licenses from the government, the system of which matatu takes which route and when is largely regulated by the drivers and their conductors (conductors are the individuals who partner with drivers and are responsible for collecting money and getting customers)
This is my first time going and I have no idea how to get there besides vague instructions from a friend. I’m nervous to ask since my Swahili is all google translate based. But there is no need. The conductor approaches me. He asks me what I need. And here the businessman in him seizes the opportunity. “Where are you going my sister?”He eases all the uncertainty I was feeling, and assures me, his bus is the right one. I enter his empty matatu. As I sit in the heavily decorated matatu, I realize the passion Matatu owners have. We often don’t see it as that in our daily lives, but take a look at the picture of the matatu: this man is clearly passionate about Kobe Bryant and his business. These matatus are often covered head to toe in pictures of an inspiring leader e.g. Bob Marley, Martin Luther King. Secretly, I dream of the day I see a matatu covered in pictures and quotes about me.
As I look around I realize there are other matatus filling up and leaving before ours. I stand up ready to search for another one, but the conductor catches me and convinces me to stay. He offers to show me where to stop and which road to take to reach my destination. He makes himself the best option and I sit down. Finally, the journey starts, I and 18 other passengers, fit in a 15-passenger bus. Somehow, he’s found a way to stretch his goals to increase utilization.
As I’m nervously checking the route, trying to find any of the landmarks my friend described I notice a police block. As the bus driver slows down to stop, the risk-taking conductor jumps out of the still moving matatu and goes over to negotiate the penalty. He’s back before I’ve even had time to count the number of police at the road block. (A story for another day is how I find in Zimbabwe police road blocks are where you find the highest density of government employees, but that’s for another day.) Before long we are now going up a hill, the car slows down and even with my basic understanding of car engines, I can sense something is wrong. I can feel panic begin to creep up, until I notice the driver is turning into a gas station. He eases in and the conductor jumps out and gets the matatu refuelled. I realize the two-man team knew exactly when they needed to refuel, they had planned this journey up to the number of kilometres to the gas station. At this point the conductor calls for my attention- he’s telling me it’s my stop. As I descend he’s holding a pregnant lady’s bag so she can enter the matatu with ease. I’m amazed at the level of care he takes with his customers- amazing people/customer relationship management. The best part of this journey is it’s only cost me the equivalent of USD 0.50, true value for money.
There are many models to use to study business, we learnt some key ones at ESMT, but the Responsible Leaders Fellowship gave me a chance to apply the models. I loved watching business in Nairobi and Harare, realizing the similarities between Amazon and a flea market, how street vendors are like pop up ads on a site, knowing when and how to enter your line of sight and get a sale; or how Uber gives you a map as rider so you can make sure you know where you’re going, similarly, in a matatu the driver assures me continuously I’m on the right route. But most importantly I loved working with Welthungerhilfe’s farmers on treating farming as a business. Doing trainings on analyzing output, increasing efficiencies and record keeping was such an amazing experience. Discussing and working on what elements of a digital platform would be valuable to farmers and working on a strategy for Kenya and Zimbabwe with the organization reminded me, business can change the world positively.