Nairobi, Kenya January 2011

Just back from an intense week in Nairobi where I ran CIDA’s two day course on Mentoring and Facilitating for the British Council Creative Enterprise programme, then did a public lecture on Innovation on the Wednesday, and finished the week with our two day workshop on Creativity and Innovation. The programme was pretty similar to the one I did in Harare last autumn although the numbers weren’t quite as high, largely due to the fact, I’m told, that Kenya goes on holiday from pre Christmas to mid January. But it was a great week – there seemed to be a core of people who did everything (i.e. both sets of workshops and the lecture) which seemed to change the dynamic of each session but it did mean that, by the end of the week, we had all got to know each other pretty well! There was a very high energy level, and a real hunger for knowledge coming from people working in different sectors (and countries – we had a contingent from Tanzania, one of whom stayed for the whole week and attended everything). Yet again the overriding impression is one of optimism – the riots after the last elections in Kenya are perceived to have caused real damage to the external perception of their economy but most of the people I worked with were confident in their sense that things are improving.

From a working perspective, the general atmosphere in Nairobi seems closer to Harare than to Lagos, not economically of course, but as people. It seems that the East Africans are seen as warmer and gentler than their West African counterparts, although there was considerable amusement as the Tanzanian group members explained that most East African countries see the Kenyans as the Nigerians of the East, being perceived as the most money-driven and commercially focused community in East Africa!

From the perspective of the occasional visitor over the last couple of years, which is how I have to describe myself, there does seem to be an intensity and energy in Lagos which I didn’t observe in Harare or Nairobi – on the other hand, you can’t walk around in Lagos and you can in the East African cities; people there do seem a bit gentler, less hassled (except in rush hour: the Nairobi traffic is then holding its own against the worst anywhere!). It’s probably because most of the people I have met in each country have been brought together in common cause of one kind or another by the British Council but I do have to say that, without exception, people have been welcoming, positive, determined, knowledge-hungry, articulate, challenging, opinionated and vocal. Unlike in Singapore, for example, where we had to work quite hard to get workshop participants to interact with us or with each other, in every African country and especially last week in Nairobi, they were almost unstoppable! (At the end of the week, they specifically articulated how much they had really loved the ‘practise doing’ sessions which had enabled them to exchange ideas and knowledge with each other!)
Over the last twelve months, whenever we do the Environment Map as part of the innovation process, looking at the business world and its trends in the relevant city, a conclusion always seems to be that there is a real sense of business optimism and a sense of building the future. (And I always check that reading with the group to make sure we aren’t being romantic or over-eager!) As someone commented, it’s the story of Africa that is just not being told yet – or not told enough. Last week, we had professionals ranging from business angels, senior bankers and property developers to entrepreneurs in training and development, marketing and communications, and the arts – and an even broader mix in both other cities – so this is not a Pollyanna-ish perspective we are getting. There seems to be an almost tangible change in the atmosphere and in the confidence of the local business community and, of course, that’s what makes it all so exciting. There are still huge issues, ranging from corruption to physical infrastructure, that need addressing but, overall, it seems that, in parts of Africa at least, things are perceptibly changing for the better. And look! Thanks to Twitter, I’ve just found this from : Africa’s economy, as mentioned, is projected to grow 5% this year, compared to 4.7% last year, and 2.9% in 2009. Africa’s economy appears to be inextricably linked to Asia’s–the UN, as Reuters noted recently, has said that: “The recovery of global trade and the strong economic rebound in East Asia is supported by a strong rebound in Africa’s commodity exports.” (