The biggest hurdles for Kenafric, Shah says, is dealing with the government and managing its 2,000 strong workforce.
“Managing a big business is about managing people. So managing people is the most critical and it comes with emotions. [You have] keep them constantly motivated.”
The family behind the business
The family behind Kenafric is part of the greater Shah community which has been remarkably successful in business in Kenya, particularly in manufacturing. Shah says the Shahs were originally farmers drawn from 26 villages in Gujarat state in the northwest India. They emigrated to Kenya during the 1920-1940 economic depression. On arrival in Kenya, they adopted the surname Shah for easy identification.
“My grandfather came here on a steamboat because his brother was here and had told him there is opportunity in Africa. At the time, India was going through depression and it was very difficult to make ends meet. Just like him, there were thousands of others who came.”
Shah attributes the community’s success in business to hard work, passion and the belief that it is possible “to do bigger and greater things”.
“I think there is a fear of failure. It’s because we came from this background where we had nothing, so we don’t want to go back to that. There is a sense of belonging to the community,” he says. ”The community is about 12,000 strong in Kenya and everyone is a businessperson. Either they own a shop or a factory or they are in trading or in services. When you put all that together it builds a beautiful value chain and through the ages we have tried to support community members to grow.”
Younger generations have often taken over the running of the family business, not just among the Shahs, but also in most Asian family businesses in Africa.
Educated in England, Shah joined the family business six years ago.
“There are people like me… who have been educated in the West… and everyone is coming back here because they see the opportunity, Africa rising. But at the same time there are people who have found jobs in the service sector in the Western world, mainly in banking and have chosen to live and work there. But those same people are still very jealous of us.”
With most young people from the Asian community going to school in Europe and the US and choosing to pursue careers of their own choice, professionalising family business is inevitable in the long run.
“Obviously at our stage and where our business is at we are professionalising… and definitely the end result is an IPO [listing]. So we could always give our kids shares then they can be astronauts or whatever they want and still live a good life.”