African ideas can work in Dubai, says Kenyan entrepreneur

“I like to set up businesses, put a good team in place and then move on,” says serial entrepreneur Des Bowden.

Des Bowden

Des Bowden

Over the last 30 years, Des Bowden and his wife Tilda have set up numerous businesses in Kenya. They have left a number of ventures, have continued to run five to date and have had to shut down those that were not successful.

“We are very good at coming up with ideas, starting the businesses and then letting our staff carry on. I am an ideas person. I like variety. I don’t like the day to day of running a business,” says Bowden, co-founder and managing director of advertising company InEast Africa.

After graduating from Chelsea Art School in the UK and a stint working with magazines in London, the Kenyan-born entrepreneur decided to move back home. Bowden started his first business, Adapt Advertising, which worked with corporate firms in Kenya and was involved in the launch of Kenya’s largest mobile network operator Safaricom.

After 20 years working in the advertising industry, Bowden decided to move to Dubai and start a new business.

“I was a little burnt out by the advertising industry. It was just a split second decision to move away from advertising. We had visited Dubai a few months earlier. We saw the Dubai environment, the visitors coming in and the massive hotel development that was going on. It was just perfect for this business.”

Bowden started Castaway Design, a company that produces mini leaflets that give visitors in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) information on what they can see and experience with details ranging from entertainment, shopping malls, health and beauty, property and car services.

The company, which has been in operation for a decade now, distributes the mini cards to 400 hotels and other outlets in Dubai.

“Although the idea was already working in Europe and the US, it was non-existent in Dubai. We thought if we got in then, whilst the hotels were being built and there was a huge influx of people coming in we would be at the right place at the right time. This turned out to be true.”

Through a franchising model, Castaway Design has expanded into Bahrain and Abu Dhabi. The company distributed 4m mini cards in the UAE last year.

Bowden explained that setting up the business in Dubai was quite easy because of the free zone environment investors are offered.

However, it took a while before the business took off.

“It’s a difficult market to break into. We had to get the buy-in from the hotels, get the advertisers on board and in order to get the advertising you also need to have the critical mass. It was a difficult business to start. We had to offer a lot of free advertising and invest quite a lot of money into the initial business before it started taking off.”

After living in Dubai for two years, Bowden moved back to Kenya but continues to run the business.

“Dubai was exciting for quite a while, when it was going through its heyday. I love Kenya and I love being in Kenya. Dubai is very contrived, everything is man-made; it is far away from the nature of Kenya,” says Bowden. “Dubai is all work while Kenya is a bit more laid back. I feel more comfortable working here because I know how the system works.”

Opportunities in the UAE

According to Bowden, there are numerous opportunities in Dubai for entrepreneurs and investors from Africa.

“It’s got a lot of potential. There are a lot of ideas you could take from here, believe it or not, and take there and you would be very successful. For instance, the way technology is working here, especially in the telecoms industry is way ahead of many countries. You could take certain aspects of that and do well in Dubai.”

While setting up a business in Dubai is considerably easy, in Kenya Bowden has had to contend with archaic laws and ever changing rules and regulations. Despite these challenges, Bowden says he still prefers to do business in Kenya.

“Things are forever changing and it’s difficult to keep up with it. There is a lot of change going on in the country at the moment which I think is great but again that brings its own challenges,” he says. “ On the flipside of that, I love the networking abilities in Kenya; how you can interact with people. It’s a fantastic culture where everybody tries to help each other get forward. It’s a friendly environment.”

Maintain integrity 

Bowden attributes his success in business to maintaining integrity at all times.

“If you behave with integrity and people trust you, then it would help you move forward. Keep your integrity even during challenging times. It is important for people to trust you and want to work with you and partner with you. I feel that has helped me.”

In the future, Bowden would like to see his team of staff run his various ventures as he focuses more on a new passion: conservation. Bowden says he is excited about the ongoing development in Africa, but he is “nervous” about the growing neglect for the environment. Bowden is also in charge of the Kenya Charity Sweepstake, a charity organisation that runs lottery games in the country.

“Within the different businesses we do have very good teams. My main plan is to inspire those teams to run those businesses like their own so that I can free myself up. I would like to do more in conservation.”

Bowden advised aspiring entrepreneurs to only invest in ideas for which they have a passion.

“Think about what you are going to start before you start it. Many people spend a lot of energy without giving the business enough thought. You have to think about competition, uniqueness of the idea and sustainability. You have to really think about why you are starting that business. It has got to be something that you enjoy.

“You need to put in a lot of energy in the beginning and as you get along you need to continue being innovative, move with the times and constantly think of new ideas and new ways to keep your business fresh.”