The horrifying events of September 21, 2013 and the subsequent days changed all of us as individuals and as a people. As we sat riveted to our television sets and hoping for the best outcome during the Westgate siege, our internal process of change began.
Traumatising events often transform nations. Post-World War II ushered in more populist pro-social welfare regimes into power across Europe as citizens demanded change. Post-September 11, 2001 left the US feeling vulnerable, which resulted in extreme measures in attempts to protect itself.
Much of the world’s media now ponders how we as Kenyans will evolve following the Westgate Mall tragedy and how individual changes may impact collective national conscience. Furthermore, speculation deepens on how changes will impact business.
No strangers to tragedy, we initially lost our innocence in 1998 as global terrorism landed on our doorstep.
Our resilient Kenyan spirit persevered and the commensurate international attention coupled with both continued liberalisation policies and the rise of the Internet ushered in our rapid globalisation.
Kenyans who left for studies before 1998 and stayed away for 10 or more years, later came home to a dramatically different nation: changed culture, results of rapid economic expansion, and more middle and upper class citizens.
So how will the trials and tribulations of the past week change us? How will changes affect business? Certainly we came together in national unity and charity, especially so in the blood drives.
Similarly, the 2001 terrorist attacks in America left a comparable combination of national cohesion and kindness in the US that lasted for more than a year.
Our Kenyan unique identity and values will guide us. As for our brothers and sisters in the US, fear crept into the American conscience following the terrorist attacks and politicians pounced to exploit the emotions.
Fear brought forth the loss of privacy protections through the Patriot Act, the botched Iraq war, and the NSA secret surveillance programme that we all read about these days. As for us, what Kenyan propensity exists to replicate national fear and the commensurate destruction it brings?
As the eyes of the world lay upon us now in our moments of national mourning, healing, and rebuilding, the citizens of other countries do not understand some key aspects about Kenyans that separate us from the rest of the world and ensure that Kenya remains an excellent place to live, conduct business, and invest.
First, Kenyan culture stands superior to many other national cultures in handling the aftermath of crises. Using Dr Geert Hofstede’s framework, Kenya exists largely as a collectivist society. Therefore, we react more as one and find our sense of security in our togetherness. Our probability to individualistically lash out remains unlikely.
Further, Kenya’s remarkable ability to tolerate uncertainty shocks many visitors. Following national disasters, Kenyans get back to work and businesses start running quickly and efficiently.
The dramatic events following the 2007 elections only deterred us momentarily. Our uncertainty tolerance helps banish the fear that often leads other nations into undesirable directions.
Finally, in Hofstede’s framework, Kenyans do not indulge ourselves in instant gratification. We patiently look for solutions instead of dive in headfirst. Therefore, the world should not expect Kenya to over-react to a tragedy, but to provide proportional sensible responses that make logical sense to foster our pro-business environment.
Next, the much talked about, but often undefined, Kenyan spirit enhances our business readiness in unique ways: First, Kenyans work harder than anywhere else: anyone who travels outside Kenya notices our solid work ethic upon their return.
Secondly, Kenyan entrepreneurism across all our ethnicities remains unmatched globally in its intensity, sincerity, risk tolerance, and vibrancy. Thirdly, no culture anywhere maintains a better sense of humour than right here in Kenya.
A powerful Dutch development executive often exclaims how only in Kenya can someone “laugh all day and still get work done”.
Our humour increases foreign willingness and enjoyment of doing business with us. Fourth, sense of hope in Kenya remains alive and well. Kenyans strongly believe that the future holds brighter paths for the nation and for its citizens.
Most other nations lack our optimism. Fifth, Kenya’s sense of community brings us together in times of need, times of joy, and times of growth like no other place on earth.
In addition to the above mentioned Kenyan spirit, businesses and investors may still benefit from our more tangible inputs to offer: phenomenally educated workforce with some of the highest youth literacy rates in the world, liberal trade policies and Export Processing Zones, consistent high Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth at 4.4 per cent, and annual returns on public equities among the top five nations in the world.
Others are moderate labour wage rates, position as centre of regional and continental transport and trade routes, and diversified service-oriented economy similar to Western nations’ composition of service, manufacturing, and agricultural sectors.
Unless the rest of the world overreacts to our own national tragedy with hypocritical excessive travel advisories, investment withholding, and double standards, the pro-business Kenyan environment will stun global investors.
In post-21 September 2013 Kenya, expect a Kenyan citizenry more aware of the nation’s integral intertwined place in the world and how global problems may be solved through business. Now is the time to invest in Kenya, not leave it.
As a foreigner myself, how have I decided to continue with my business in Kenya? Following nearly 14 years here, I consider myself a proud and patriotic Kenyan.
I would die in defence and support of Kenya. I am proud of my adopted country and committed to remain here, lecture, and support local business. I intend to eat and shop at Westgate the very day it reopens. Kenya is still open for business.
Prof Bellows is the director of the New Economy Venture Accelerator (NEVA) at USIU’s Chandaria School of Business and Colorado State University, www.usiu.ac.ke/gsse. E-mail: [email protected]; Twitter: @ScottProfessor.