Nairobi is notorious for its traffic. Luckily, most of the city was still resting from New Year’s celebrations and we arrived early for out first company visit with AKDN and Nation Media Group. AKDN – Aga Khan Development Network – from what I understood, is an incredible group of companies which exist to improve the lives of Ismaili Muslims around the world. His Highness the Aga Khan is “hereditary Imam (Spiritual Leader) of the Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims”. The companies within the network work to rebuild cultural heritage sites in Afghanistan, Egypt, Syria, Pakistan and more, invest in projects that improve the infrastructure, educational environment and health services in the communities where the Ismaili Muslims live. All companies and projects, while not focused on being profitable, are meant to be self-sustaining.
In Kenya, AKDN is particularly influential via IPS (Industrial Promotion Services), which provides venture capital as well as technical and managerial support for companies in the consumer goods, healthcare and infrastructure space, Nation Media Group, a conglomerate that owns and operated newspapers, radio stations and television networks across East Africa and TPS (Tourism Promotion Services), which, under the Serena Hotel brand, promotes tourism in East Africa (Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya, Mozambique and Rwanda) as well as the Middle East (Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Pakistan) by providing 5-star accommodations.
Nation Media Group is the perfect example of the progressive spirit we encountered all over Kenya. They are not afraid of reinventing themselves and seem to be looking forward to the challenges associated with the shift from print to digital media. We met with them in their new (as of 2012) printing press, where the Daily Nation and their other print media originate. The press, quiet at 10am, was sparkling and clean, the large German presses waiting to be fed rolls of South Korean newsprint. Although print revenue is declining globally, an overwhelming portion of NMG’s revenue is still derived from this channel. Nation Media Group is preparing itself to continue providing the independent, objective news its has been printing since 1960, regardless of the medium. Upon leaving, we were all gifted a copy of Birth of a Nation, an illustrative account of Kenya’s post-colonial history, via the lens of the birth of this independent newspaper, The Daily Nation.
Lunch at Hotel Serena (the setting of the opening paragraph of Birth of a Nation and part of TPS’s Serena Hotel Group) will forever linger in my mind as having served me the most memorable cauliflower soup to date.
The hotel itself is still gorgeous, despite having been built in the mid-70s. Its Moroccan style dining room and leather studded lounge are both regally inviting.
From there we drove to Nakumatt in Westside Center, one of Nairobi’s many shopping centers, though this one being particularly famous for the terrorist attack there in 2013. Nakumatt is Kenya’s largest supermarket chain, which closely resembles a Wal-Mart, except that it’s primarily a grocery store and the super-centers have the addition of home goods and clothing, instead of vice versa. We walked downs aisles of Cadbury chocolates, Kenyan groundnuts (peanuts), macadamia nuts and Nakumatt-branded crisps and biscuits (chips and cookies for the American English speaker) to the stairs leading to the second floor, where we met Thiagarajan Ramamurthy, Regional Director of Strategy & Operations. My biggest takeaway was to take care of your employees -pay them fairly and attempt to supply for their daily needs. He let us know that they were not interested in following a low-cost model similar to that of Aldi’s, because they want to create jobs, not cut them.
After Nakumatt, we went to the Masai Market, a roving market of goods and trinkets. While we had romantically anticipated local produce and goods, it was clear that this was more kitchy and catering towards tourists. It seemed like we were at one of the cheesy, ubiquitous street fairs that close down chunks of city blocks around NYC in the summer. I still bargained for 5 large pieces of fabric, though. Apparently, Masai men wear the red prints to scare off wild animals.
From there we returned to our hotel next to another shopping center, Village Market. We split into two groups, some of us meeting with AKDN’s IPS, and touring the construction site at Village Market, which is expanding to include, among other things, a Planet Fitness. IPS talked about their Stevia project and whether there is a potential market that would justify encouraging farmers to grow it for extraction, as well as the university they’re building in Arusha, just over the border with Tanzania. For anyone interested in Impact Investing and VC – this is truly the dream company to work for.
Tour of Village Market expansion site