Business people are more easily able to educate their children, they have more livestock, and they wear nicer clothes. Because they are seen to have more, they are expected to help more in the form of handouts, goods on credit, and sometimes knowledge sharing.
Over the past two years I have travelled to Marsabit County in Northern Kenya four times to talk to the same 50 people about their lives and experiences as participants of FSD Kenya’s Building Livelihoods programme. The programme aims to help participants develop sustainable livelihoods through business. Over the past two years I have seen some participants develop new businesses through the programme, while others have maintained or evolved existing businesses. As I spoke to them about business and the changes and challenges they experience, a number of participants mentioned the challenge of community expectations. For example, a woman named Nairemuno told me that community members expect her to provide goods on credit, which limits her business success. As she explained:
“The people don’t buy goods from us in the village, they buy elsewhere. One cannot be established because they only come when they need goods on credit. You can’t deny them because you live with them. They have kids like you do. They buy elsewhere and come when they don’t have any cash. That prevents you from being established. Our people don’t do well in business because they ask for too much credit. You can’t afford to deny them. When you fail to get money to re-stock, you’ll have to sell your animals.”
In this community the poor help each other. If someone has more, they help others who have less. That is part of what it means to be a member of the community. In other words, it forms part of the identity of community member. What I found, particularly during my initial visits, was that this identity of community member influenced what it means to be a business person. What I heard during my interviews was that business people are perceived as ‘having more’ than non-business people, such as casual labourers who fetch sand, water or firewood. Business people are more easily able to educate their children, they have more livestock, and they wear nicer clothes. Because they are seen to have more, they are expected to help more in the form of handouts, providing goods on credit, and sharing knowledge.
The question that intrigued me was how participants maintain and grow a business while dealing with requests from community members. In essence, I wanted to understand how they balance their identity of business person and their identity of community member, which at times have conflicting demands. What I found was a continuum of participant responses ranging from prioritising community member requests, to trying to balance between helping community members and sustaining a business, to prioritising business.
The earlier example of Nairemuno, portrays a participant who prioritises community member requests. She feels she must help others by providing them with goods on credit, even if it means her business fails. I witnessed a similar response across a number of participants, particularly during my earlier visits. However, over time I saw changes in responses. While some participants continued to prioritise community member requests, others began to establish boundaries to limit impact on their business. For example, Monica explained:
“Yes they want [things from me as a business person]. They come and borrow from me. Everyone, even your pal or brother they come and borrow. Some of them are like me, they hustle day in and out to put food in the table. But at times their effort bore no fruits, so they come and borrow from me. You just give a little so that the impact it has for business is more manageable.”
While Monica is essentially trying to balance between business and community expectations, others are prioritising business. Over the two years of my study I have watched participants learn new meanings associated with business, which include differentiation, competition, strategizing, savings, and growth. Some participants have incorporated these meanings into their identity as a business person, which has translated into new behaviours. During my most recent visit in March 2018, a number of participants told me they have either stopped giving goods on credit or have become more selective about who they give credit to. As one man explained:
“One should stop giving out goods on credit. It is better to stay with the stock than giving them out on credit. Or you sell them at a lower price to make people come instead of selling for debts.”
Other participants have developed different strategies to avoid giving goods on credit. Some have changed their business from selling food items to trading livestock, while others have moved their shops outside their village to reduce expectations from neighbours. One participant explained he gets his son to run his shop to stop himself from giving goods on credit:
“I am no longer in the shop, my son is there. If I am at the shop I will easily give out credit, I don’t know how to say no to some people and if I stay there I will soon bring the business to a close. But when the boy is there he will just refer to them that I didn’t want people to take goods on credit.”
As these examples show, there are tensions between what it means to be a member of the community and what it means to be a business person. The way participants choose to respond to these tensions can impact the sustainability of their business and perhaps even change the way communities function. While many factors influence business success and failure in this context, understanding how identities such as these are experienced and responded to can provide additional insight into why some businesses continually struggle while others progress.
In the final Part 5 of this blog series I will explore additional identities of participants and how the Building Livelihoods programme is shaping them to increase empowerment.
Notes & References