A few years ago Indian-born entrepreneur Sriram Bharatam travelled to Africa as part of a trade delegation seeking business opportunities. The tour took them to Kenya, Nigeria and Ghana.
Although he had (and still has) a thriving IT business in India making “a couple million dollars” a year, he decided to move to Kenya. The country appealed to him due to the popularity of mobile money platforms, relatively good internet connectivity and because the majority of the population is proficient in English.
He extended his initial one week trip to nearly two months studying the business environment. And although he had negative experiences such as being mugged and getting no help from police because they wanted a bribe, Bharatam says the opportunities were far too compelling.
Kenya vs India
At age 39 and going through a mid-life crisis, Bharatam saw an opportunity to start a new venture in Kenya. He established Kuza Biashara (Swahili for ‘grow businesses’), a firm that is building the capacity of SMEs by leveraging web and mobile technologies.
The company has produced more than 450 ‘how to’ videos that entrepreneurs can watch to understand the basics of business management including accounting, finance, human resources and sales and marketing.
He also continued to run Iridium Interactive, an IT business he founded in 2000 with offices in India, the US and Kenya.
“At the time my business in India was employing more than 120 people. In my absence I knew the business would survive even if it did not grow further,” he says. “In Kenya, like in any other growing economy, opportunities are vast. There is so much you can do here.”
The sheer size of India’s 1.2bn population may appear more appealing to most people compared to Kenya’s market of 45m people. But Bharatam has a different perspective. He explains that a daily newspaper in Kenya sells for Ksh.60 while in India for the equivalent of just Ksh.6.
“At that price, if you are selling 100m newspapers in India per day it makes sense. Here you will still make money even when selling 100,000 copies per day,” he says, adding Kenya’s is a spending economy while India is traditionally a nation of savers.
So a plumber in Kenya would spend his money on nice clothes and shoes, for instance. In India they would save money for the next generation. “When you do business in a spending economy, your chances of success are much higher,” he believes.
By 2018 he hopes Kuza Biashara will have a network of 1m SMEs. “I could run it in India but would have to do it in 30 languages. The country is so big I’d have to travel all over. Here there are 45m people, they all speak, write and read English. Also there are a lot of innovative youths starting businesses. Surely I can get 1m SMEs,” he says.
While there are many upsides to doing business in Kenya, Bharatam laments there is mistrust, a lack of ethics, and short-sightedness with people often preferring to make an extra buck immediately as opposed to building lasting relationships.
“I also see many people running businesses on the side. They think by having many businesses they will make more money. I run three businesses but all three are independent and are run by different people. And it took me 14 years to be able to do this.”
Bharatam adds passion is an underlying factor in entrepreneurship but should be combined with a good business model. Belief in one’s product is also vital. When he came to Kenya, one of his first clients was a leading telecommunications firm. “I made 107 visits (to the telco) before the deal went through. When you believe in your product you don’t give up easily.”