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Capturing success in Kenyan agribusiness during COVID-19

Updated: Nov 18, 2020

In the wake of COVID-19, our Kenyan correspondent, Bob Koigi, set out to record the business challenges faced by youth groups across the country and their successes in spite of those hurdles. In the age of social distancing, face coverings and hand sanitiser, reporting in the field had to be approached differently. Bob details his experiences and highlights the lessons learned during this strange time.

Bob (front) and Georgina Smith (with camera) were sure to observe COVID precautions when reporting from the Kilifi Coast in Kenya

When I recently got the chance, through WRENmedia, to document the success stories and journeys of young men and women agri-entrepreneurs in Kilifi and Nakuru Counties of Kenya, I was looking forward to a great experience. The youth had received business support that included mentorship, training and funding through a project dubbed Vijabiz, funded by CTA and IFAD, and implemented by Ustadi Foundation.

However, it was a uniquely tough time to document these stories as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Knowing that the in-field visits would take around a week, we had numerous consultations and deliberations via online meetings with the WRENmedia team as to what would be the best approach to keep everyone safe. We settled on having a COVID test before and after the assignment and, of course, to follow social distancing and PPE guidelines at all times when meeting the groups.

So, armed with masks and sanitisers, my colleague Georgina Smith, who was co-reporting on the stories and was responsible also for photography, and I, set off to Nakuru County on a Sunday afternoon, ready to meet the first group, Step by Step, the following day. We were to interview Geoffrey Mwangi, chairman of the 10-member youth group which was in the business of selling milk through ATMs, and making yoghurts. When Geoffrey arrived, excited to see us, we experienced an awkward moment; he enthusiastically extended his hand to greet us and I extended mine to reciprocate but, before completing the gesture, we remembered the recommendations on social contact. I retracted and opted instead for the non-contact Namaste greeting with my palms pressed together. He then tapped his forehead slightly in return.

Over the next three days, we criss-crossed the expansive Nakuru County, meeting, interviewing and chatting with ordinary young people whose passion and pride in what they do in the cereal, dairy and fish value chains was written across their glowing faces and radiant smiles.

Adapting sales strategies

Before heading off for the next county, Kilifi, I reviewed my materials to identify the strongest story angles. I kept coming back to the same message; the hit the businesses had taken from the pandemic and the zeal and determination with which the youth had worked to rise above it. A clear example of this was seen by some of the fishing and single mothers’ groups we went on to see in coastal Kilifi, who had not only been impacted by COVID-19, but also had been previously affected by flooding as a result of the heavy rains in 2016.

When COVID-19 struck, and the markets for these businesses closed, the youth remained committed to their projects and, through Vijabiz support and training, turned to social media to identify new customers on Facebook and WhatsApp groups. Others, like KibaoKiche, who are involved in fish farming, took up door-to-door fish selling, even going deep into the rural areas to seek out new customers when their shop was ordered to close by the Ministry of Health.

Others groups have adopted a strategy of diversification. The Saidia Young Mothers Youth Group, for example, started out by selling maize and beans to schools but now runs a series of businesses including processing virgin coconut oil, hairdressing and offering catering services for local events. This diverse approach has insulated them during COVID-19 as their successful operations, such as virgin oil processing, are now compensating for those that are more affected, like selling maize to schools that had been closed during the peak of the pandemic.

What also stood out to me was the dedication exhibited by the young people who never took a break during working hours. When interviewing Sylvia Madenje, secretary of Saidia Young Mothers Youth Group, I had estimated that the interview would take around 30 minutes, but it went on for close to two hours as she politely paused the conversation to receive calls from clients inquiring about their services and products, “I am sorry I keep interrupting the interview. I hope you understand,” she apologised. “Business is picking up, we have taken a hit from the coronavirus so we are keen on all enquiries and how we can translate them into sales,” Sylvia explained.

Reflecting on a critical moment

Observing the COVID-19 social distancing guidelines became increasingly difficult, even as we tried our very best to adhere to them. When watching the Ten Sisters group, a group of women involved in maize milling, we needed to get the perfect shots of them operating the milling machines, and listen to the conversations and interactions between the women and their customers. In this case, as in several others, the small premises required us to squeeze together to observe business operations, but we tried our best to stick to the recommended 2m social distancing rules.

When the in-field work was complete, and as I went through my interview recordings, I was lost in deep reflection, recalling the extraordinary career moment I had just experienced. I was now one of the journalists who had been on the frontline at the time of the pandemic, capturing the stories that matter and interacting with people on-the-ground.

More importantly though, I contemplated the admiration I had for those I had met. Over the course of the trip, I had listened to the entrepreneurs describe their business journeys, explain living through this unforeseen pandemic, and how it had significantly altered their lives and businesses. The stories that struck me the most through, were the accounts of how they stood tall to rebuild and take care of their businesses.

Bob Koigi

To read the second part of this blog series, by Georgina Smith, see: When the going gets tough: lessons from young entrepreneurs in Kenya

To read about the inspirational youth groups involved in the Vijabiz Project, see the full publication, produced by WRENmedia, here:

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