Conventional wisdom throughout Kenya has it that hair is synonymous with creativity and innovation. That is why during the online classes, teachers have been telling our children that akili ni nywele (hair is like brains) although they also add the rider that everyone has his or hers.
With Kenyan men observing social distance from their barbers — and the pretty young ladies who massage their egos after a haircut — we have seen them increasingly looking like their Jewish or Amish counterparts, with beards touching their chests and hair rising to the skies as though they have been electrocuted. Soon, we will be back to the Afro days of the 1970s and 1980s.
Although this has made some CEOs look less regal than they used to before the coronavirus, it has led many Kenyans to come up with creative and innovative ideas that, if harnessed over the long term, have the potential to transform the country’s economy and the way we do business.
You may have witnessed, even in your shrinking circle of friends, family and colleagues, that people have suddenly discovered skills they never knew they had. In my own household, for instance, I noticed that my children kept colouring their notebooks.
The day I decided to take a look, I found out that they were designing football kits — and they even had designs for home and away matches. Before the coronavirus, we had established a routine in which, every Saturday, we would make our way to the pitch at Gigiri for training.
With football on lockdown all over the world except Germany, those who love the game have had to find ways of keeping their passion alive. For my sons, that came in the form of drawing fancy kits. Now I am thinking I should introduce them to Lucy Rao.
By the way, long before she became one of Kenya’s best designers, she used to work as an agricultural engineer, meaning that she could repair a tractor at the drop of a hat, so to speak. Indeed, there was a day she received a trophy from the then President Daniel arap Moi after she won a ploughing contest. She turned out in blue overalls to receive the award. Today, she makes award-winning fashion designs.
The point I wanted to make with this anecdote is that we must embrace innovation, with or without the coronavirus. Without the virus, we can decide our pace. With the virus, however, we have to trot, and if we do not, we will be left running behind everyone else.
Back to innovation.
You may have noticed that since Kenya imposed restrictions to flatten the coronavirus curve, many companies have become more creative, not just in how they handle their employees but also in the way they offer their products.
For instance, businesses that traditionally waited for their customers to walk in are now taking their products to the people. Only this week, I received an alert from the Villa Rosa Kempinski that they are now doing home and office deliveries, meaning that if I wanted to enjoy a five-course meal from the comfort of my house, I could. I only need to afford it, but that is a conversation we can have behind the white tent reserved for Nairobi visitors.
Last week, our columnist, Carol Musyoka, informed our readers that there has been an increase in the number of people seeking to register both companies as well as sole proprietorships. If you missed the piece, it is not too late to check it up online. Before Covid-19, all these people were snoozing in their comfort zones.
However, with companies facing disruptions and their workers taking pay cuts or unpaid leave, many are now exploring new options to increase their incomes. That is why men who have discovered their passion for baking cakes are now lining up to open patisseries and market their products online. I have even seen one on Facebook marketing artificial flowers. For real.
Not too long ago, I visited a factory in Kikuyu that uses the latest technology to make children’s furniture. Although this is a story for next week, I can mention in passing that the CEO, Ciiru Waweru Waithaka, was telling me that a day would come when Kenyans would embrace innovation and technology and start making a wide range of products locally.
Not long after, the coronavirus came and suddenly, we could not import a lot of the things that we used to. Then we started asking: Can’t we make these things here? In no time, Kenyans started registering a plethora of innovations, including the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology students, who started making ventilators. Lawyers like Donald Kipkorir also offered their expertise to help the innovators register their patents.
Now, even traditional businesses like barbershops and recreational beverage sellers have had to embrace innovation, including offering their services in the homes of their customers. Meaning that all along, our creativity as a nation was latent, it was just waiting for a trigger.
Well, the trigger did not come in the form of government incentives, although I am tempted to believe that the President offered musicians Sh200 million in royalties after watching the Femi One and Okonkwo video.
For everyone else, innovation and creativity, as has happened in other climes for millenia, have been inspired by adversity. Of course, with the exception of those who have been lucky enough to inherit theirs from their distaff side.