Before moving to Kenya, I never imagined that I would look forward to lunch as much as I do. No, it’s not the food, although I do enjoy the fish and chapati, but what really causes me to rush down to the lunchroom is the opportunity to interact with the other employees here at Safaricom – Kenya’s largest mobile telecom operator and a leader in mobile money technology. Every day at lunch I meet someone new from a different department who has a different perspective on the company’s operations and future prospects. Threats to M-Pesa (mobile money) may be the topic of discussion one day, while Little (a partnership with a local competitor to Uber) could be the focus the next. No matter the subject, the conversations have been helpful to me in my role as part of the strategy and innovation department. These valuable interactions have allowed me to take the pulse of the company’s employee base and get their opinions on what the company is doing well and could improve. They have also enabled me to gain a better understanding and appreciation for the unique challenges and opportunities presented while doing business in Kenya. I’ve realized that one size does not fit all and that business models that work in one area may be ineffective in another.
Just as I have been surprised by the “other” benefits of lunch, I have similarly been delighted to learn from the other Africa Business Fellows. Comprised of individuals with varied backgrounds, personalities, and experiences, my time here has been enriched by being a member of this unique group. The “Kenya Crew” (as I affectionately call the Fellows based in Nairobi) travels together, socializes together, and has had quite a few interesting debates on a wide variety of topics. Whether it is discussing the Kenya government’s decision to limit how much banks can charge for loans or trying out a new restaurant, my fellow Fellows have helped me to continue to grow professionally and personally. My list of books to read has expanded, my overall knowledge of the African continent has increased and most importantly, I have gained 14 new friends.
One of these friends convinced me to take Swahili lessons. Upon arriving in Nairobi, I initially did not want to take on too much, but later decided it would be helpful to know more than just the basic Swahili greetings. What I’ve gained, to my surprise, has been much more than language skills. By studying Swahili, I have learned more about Kenya’s culture, its food, and its people. Furthermore, even when I’ve struggled to get the right words out, simply attempting to communicate with Kenyans in their native language has opened up enriching conversations and relationships that may not have happened otherwise.
I expected my experience as an Africa Business Fellow to be rewarding, but I have been surprised by the magnitude of all that I have learned and the quality of the relationships that I have established. I find myself agreeing more and more with the sentiment that travel is both a window and a mirror. I am not only seeing new things but I am also reflecting on business and life in the U.S. Every day I expect to see or learn something new. Luckily for me, I have met plenty of people to guide me down that path in a way that helps me better contextualize and understand what I am learning along the way.
Header image: "Kenya Crew" group photo before departing to our retreat.