Adding a new Spark to East Africa’s business landscape

Thanks to the growth of technology, East Africa has become more connected to the wider world than ever. One organisation that has worked hard to encourage links between the region’s firms and those overseas is UK Trade & Investment (UKTI). Following the UK’s Brexit vote, and subsequent change of government, UKTI was absorbed into the new Department of International Trade (DIT), where it continues to support relationships between the British private sector and its foreign counterparts.

Under the new banner of International Trade & Investment, the team will have much to do in the coming years to strengthen the UK’s global business ties, as the country adjusts to life outside the European Union. As a Kenya-based DIT trade officer, Njeri Mugo is part of that effort – and is eager to ensure that the Department’s contacts and expertise will empower East African companies to fulfil their ambitions.

Here, Njeri talks to Inemmo about the business climate in East Africa – and the valuable role that psychometrics can play in boosting leadership and talent in the region.

Njeri MugoTell us a little about your background, and what brought you into UKTI.
Having completed a Master’s degree in strategic management at a local university, I’m well versed in the conventions of how businesses work on a global level. The role that attracted me to UKTI tapped into my interests in that field by furthering the organisation’s aims to expand business networks within Kenya and – even better – to bring foreign firms into the loop as well, to expand those networks even more.

What do you think are the most impressive trends that are unfolding right now in the business landscape of East Africa?
It’s remarkable how open the market has become. Kenya’s economy used to be based much more heavily around local businesses, but now there are various campaigns and initiatives to draw foreign firms and investment into the region. That’s great, because our companies are learning from how those players have become market leaders through innovation. And importantly, it has exposed firms to a much wider ecosystem of companies, so Kenya is well placed to continue as one of the strongest economies in East Africa.

Which sectors have struck you as exemplars that other companies would do well to follow and learn from?
Energy, which is one of our main areas of focus at DIT, has seen significant advancements in terms of innovation. Local companies have been working in partnerships with business from the UK to develop smart, clean-energy solutions, creating renewable concepts that provide an alternative for the many Kenyan communities that are not on the grid. So there are certainly some exemplary companies in that field that are doing great.

More generally, there is also an Innovation Hub system, which enables entrepreneurs, startups and other innovators to pitch ideas and business models across all sectors. That has attracted a lot of interest from foreign firms, who have networked with our local entrepreneurs and supplied investment to help them bring their ideas to fruition. That’s one trend that really shows how far we’ve come.

What do you consider to be the key challenges that businesses in Kenya and East Africa currently face?
There are so many, but I’d say that these are the ones that really stand out:

  • We have a lengthy company registration process for new businesses, which doesn’t just affect Kenyan firms, but foreign ones, too. We’re starting to make some headway on that problem – so far, we’ve managed to bring waiting times down from somewhere between one and two months to around three weeks. Our ultimate aim would be to cut it down to just one week, maximum. But at the moment, we’re in the phase that will get us from where we were to where we want to be.
  • There’s a lot of corruption in the region, and it’s across the board. Indeed, corruption and bureaucracy go hand in hand, and prevent firms from thriving as they should: as an ecosystem of successful companies. In Kenya, The current government has implemented policies and measures to combat this, but much like the registration problem, there is still quite a long way to go.
  • Infrastructure is another challenge – for example, road networks and communications. Compared to other East African nations, Kenya is better off. Planners have been working towards more effective transport systems, and technicians have made improvements in the area of telecommunications. There are efforts to go fully digital, so everything is smarter, and that will help to bridge some of the frustrating infrastructure gaps that businesses have to go through.
  • Also, the costs of doing business – such as manufacturing, transportation and logistical costings – represent another, major hurdle that firms in East Africa face. In particular, electricity usage is really, really expensive. This is critical, because we have found that some manufacturing companies are opting to leave the market rather than bear those costs. That doesn’t play out very well for us in Kenya, because manufacturing is a key centre here.

What do you consider to be the most urgent opportunities for businesses there to pursue?
As a general point, the main task for firms is to identify gaps in the business ecosystem and bridge them. As Kenya is an up-and-coming country, it provides plenty of room for that. Again, I would say that the development of alternative-energy solutions is one area where local and foreign firms alike have scope to make a huge impact – particularly in the creation of smarter wind, solar and hydro solutions.

Another real growth area is ICT, because it spans the full spectrum of business sectors and can have a major influence on more traditional industries, such as agriculture. ICT also has a significant role to play in security, infrastructure and, of course, the energy sector. It ties into everything, so the possibilities are endless. It will certainly help to bridge more and more gaps as time goes on.

From what you have seen, how widely are psychometrics being adopted in East Africa?
I hadn’t actually done a psychometric test until I did Inemmo’s [Lumina Spark]! To be honest, I didn’t think they were that popular, except insofar as they’re used by recruitment firms to select staff for their client organisations – for example, as a way of shortlisting a Top 10 list of candidates. But if a psychometric system is properly implemented by a qualified professional, and the new subjects are eased into the method, then they will be able to appreciate the scope of what it can uncover.

A lot of the contacts I work with would be ideally suited to the kind of coaching that psychometrics open up, so I think that what’s really required is a combination of synergies, with the right partners who will help these tools spread, because I don’t think they’re getting as much airtime as they should. That will help businesses to understand how psychometrics can be used in all sorts of different situations – not just recruitment.

Tell me a little about your experience of Lumina Spark – how were you introduced to it, and what did it tell you about yourself?
Atiya at Inemmo introduced me to it, and took me through the nitty-gritty of how it works, as compared to some of the other methods that were popular in the past. From my point of view, it was an advantage that I didn’t know about other types of psychometrics going in, as I was able to just appreciate Lumina Spark for what it was, rather than seeing it through a kind of comparative lens.

Once Atiya had eased me into Lumina, she explained all of the various things that it tests for, so I was able to gain some interesting insights on where my comfort zone rests, how I work under pressure and the personas I adopt when I react to different situations. The most interesting – and surprising – thing I discovered was that some of the personas I adopt under certain conditions are actually different to what I’d thought they were. That was great, because it made me a bit more aware of what kind of person I am, and how I adapt to shifting scenarios. I found that really useful.

What kinds of applications do you think Lumina Spark has for the wider East African business community?
First of all, before we even get to the business community, I think it has great potential for students in higher education. They are the jobseekers of tomorrow, so Lumina will help them to improve their self-awareness, and even to simulate some of the scenarios that they are going to have to face, and fit into, as employees. That would be an effective way to prepare them for the expectations of the workplace.

In the business environment, I can see it being integrated into continuous, personal development plans (PDPs), enabling employers to use it as a strategy for building capacity and skills on a constant basis. That will give them the means to ensure that they always have the type of staff they need in their organisations. It could also help companies to develop broader business strategies, because they will have the ability to tailor their personnel towards the fulfilment of long-term goals.

Turning to topical matters, what effect do you think DIT’s recent absorption of UKTI will have on the relationship between businesses in the UK and East Africa?
It’s a little early to say how it’s going to work, because the dust is still settling. But I don’t anticipate a drastic change. We will continue to support organisations as we always have, particularly in the areas of fielding overseas posts and helping firms expand out of the UK – and by coming up with bespoke solutions that will help clients meet specific objectives.

It could be that DIT’s absorption of UKTI will make it easier for our team to fulfil its role, because now we’re working with the full force of a government department, rather than a comparatively smaller setup. We are able to explore how trade could be amplified, and taken on to an even higher and broader scale, than it was under the UKTI model.

Find out about the workplace areas where Inemmo Leadership Development Solutions can deliver change

For more on UKTI’s transformation into International Trade & Investment, read this LinkedIn blog from its CEO Dr Catherine Raines

Image of Kenyatta Avenue in the Nairobi business district courtesy of Mandingoesque, via Wikipedia