Slow But Steady: Doing Business in Kenya

The midday sun was sweltering as Cathrine and I neared the end of our hour-long journey – we had walked from the Carolina for Kibera office to Lindi, one of the more distant villages of Kibera.  Lindi looked like most of the other villages I had visited, save for the impressive paved road that was being upgraded by the Kenyan government. Up ahead, a slim, short woman appeared, her wavy black hair pulled back into a ponytail and a white smock covering her front. This was Joyce, a twenty-something hairdresser, a Lindi resident, and the reason for our visit today.

Joyce is the cervical cancer champion of Lindi. Over a year ago, she went for screening at the Tabitha Clinic and discovered that she had precancerous lesions on her cervix. Luckily, they were caught early, and she received treatment that greatly reduced her risk of cancer. However, she became concerned about how many other women might have these lesions without even knowing it, and began passionately advocating cervical cancer screening to her salon’s clients. Each week, she leads a group of women across Kibera to the clinic, spearheading the reduction in cancer prevalence in her village.

We had come to Joyce’s salon to try and convince her to become a Community Health Worker (CHW) with CFK. The organization is currently working on an expansion, which will allow the current programs to reach several other villages in Kibera, including Lindi. For this expansion to proceed, passionate and respected community members must be recruited to be a part of the process. Joyce, with her concern for the health of fellow women in her community, would make the perfect choice. For a little over an hour, Cathrine discusses the role with Joyce, making sure to answer all of her questions and allay any of her concerns. They also discuss a myriad of other topics, including various new hairstyles and Joyce’s children. Joyce even ends up doing Cathrine’s nails for an upcoming wedding.

This slow-and-steady approach to business was one of the things that I found most frustrating when I first arrived in Kenya. I am so used to having every moment of the day scheduled, and to trying to maximize the efficiency of every meeting. This, however, is just not how things work in East Africa. Time is less of an issue here, and often takes a backseat to interpersonal connections. Extra care is spent ensuring that a rapport is built, that the other person understands what is being asked of them, and that all of their concerns are addressed. Building a relationship is the most important part of any business transaction, and if you end up being a little late to your next commitment in the process, so be it.

Right before we left the salon, Joyce had agreed to become a Community Health Worker. She walked us out of her tiny workplace into the bright sun, and gave us both a warm handshake before we headed out. As we began the long stroll, I contemplated whether the same outcome would have been achieved had the conversation taken place over the phone. Somehow, I doubted it. It had taken some effort, but I was starting to understand the Kenyans’ way of doing things.

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