East Africa: Student reflections from four days in Kenya

Chazen East Africa kicked off on Sunday, January 13th with four days in Nairobi, Kenya (although many of us arrived earlier to visit some local Nairobi sights, like an elephant orphanage!).

As we now hop on the plane to head to Kigali, Rwanda (part II of our trip), I asked my peers to reflect on their key takeaway from our time in Nairobi.

Reflection #1: The potential for economic growth in Kenya is extremely high, particularly since the country has been able to “leapfrog” traditional development stages.

“The opportunity for expansion in Kenya is incredible. The country is poised for a jump in growth in tech and infrastructure—as long as political situations remain stable.” -Jackson Victor

“What surprised and intrigued me about Kenya is the rapid diffusion of cutting-edge technologies (e.g., M-PESA) that are struggling to catch on in developed countries. The potential of developing economies like Kenya to completely jump technology stages and implement already the most advanced solutions is fascinating and deeply impressive.” -Davide Pugliese

Equity Center
CBS students with the CEO of Equity Bank, James Mwangi

Reflection #2: The city of Nairobi is filled with a vibrant, dynamic energy.

“As the TA for this class with previous experience in East Africa, I’ve been eager to show my peers the excitement of working in Nairobi and the opportunities that exist here. Everyone who works here has so much energy and creativity. I hope that came across in our company visits over the last few days.” -John Plaisted

“As I leave Kenya, I am reflecting on the natural beauty of the country, the friendliness of the people, and my love for the continent. I have taken away a world of ideas for my own future social enterprise, and I am so grateful.” -Alexi Thomas

“Kenya is a prevalence of modernism, dynamism, and optimism!” -Gauthier Denoyelle

CBS students at Nairobi National Park

Reflection #3: Entrepreneurship and innovation rule the day in Nairobi.

“Kenya is a nation with an impressive drive towards creating an innovative ecosystem. Both the modern government policies and the open and enthusiastic culture helps create a fertile land towards disruptive startups in the most diverse sectors.” -Lodovico Ferrario

“Nairobi is a very vibrant city with entrepreneurship at its core. We heard that passion from the companies we sat with as well as the entrepreneurs we encountered in markets and on the streets.” -Kenny Thompson

A visit to M-KOPA, a double-bottom line company that sells and finances solar panels to customers who lack energy access across East Africa. M-KOPA has connected over 700K homes to affordable solar power through its mobile-based payment platform.

Reflection #4: Kenya is more developed than many of us expected, rejecting many of our stereotypes of Africa as “third world”.

“People seem very entrepreneurial and the confidence with which people approach life is awesome to see.” -Stef Otterspoor

“The ways the companies use technology—especially regarding data management—is more advanced than anything I was expecting.” -Carlos Dominguez

“Kenya is far more developed than I thought, as compared to my previous experience and understanding of Africa. I was also impressed, in the interactions we had, with the very little segregation between expats and local Kenyans.” -Frederico Lopes

Reflection #5: Attracting, developing, and retaining top human capital is a key challenge for many of Kenya’s high-growth companies.

“Magnifying the impact of Kenya’s impressive, socially-responsible companies only seems possible if Kenya or the companies themselves can create tech and business training programs for the employees or for current students.” -Dana Smullyan

Thaiza Alvim, Lindy Gould, Jeannette Paulino, and Sachi Nakano at BRCK, a pioneer company in building consumer electronics in Kenya

Reflection #6: Many companies in Kenya profess a foundational commitment to social enterprise and lifting low-income Kenyans out of poverty through sustainable approaches.

“I was surprised to see an entrepreneurial middle class committed to transforming their country in sustainable and socially impactful ways. Whether the extent to which they focus the social impact aspect is real or not, just to see that mentality present is certainly revolutionary and prone to lead to positive change.” -Thaiza Alvim

“So many businesses here in Kenya have a social purpose and are affecting positive change for low-income people. The fact that this is happening in an emerging market is incredibly encouraging. It goes to show that there is no reason why a business can’t have a social purpose in a developed market like the U.S.” -Mick Riotta

Lindy Gould ’19 is an MBA candidate at Columbia Business School.

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