This blog post is the first of a series focusing on female entrepreneurship in Southern countries. I start with an interview with a Kenyan woman, Mercy Khamala. Mercy has successfully transitioned from the humanitarian sector to business, founding the online concept store Meruti. Here she shares her journey and reflects on what she has learned along the way.
Hi Mercy, great to find you here. Tell me a bit about yourself and what you do.
I was born and raised in Nairobi. After studying in Kenya for my undergraduate degree and then in the UK, I started working as emergency nutritionist in Northern Riftvalley, Kenya; then went to South Sudan and Somalia. I spent 17 years doing this based in different ‘field’ locations, then decided to transition to a more stable professional situation after having my child. I wanted to try something different that would give me more flexibility and allow me to be with my family.
After my son’s birth, I developed the idea of an online store, Meruti, where you can buy clothes for tall women and unique home goods. I did it out of frustration, partly because I couldn’t find these things locally. We have a lot of skilled artisans in the Nairobi area – especially handicraft – but I noticed that some artisans just didn’t have the skills to sell their products online and one of the things I wanted to do with Meruti was to provide a platform to local artisans to showcase their work. Meruti also sells other home goods that are not locally produced, with more of a modern farmhouse, rustic style.
I registered my business in 2018 and it has been online since. Last year was our most successful in sales despite challenges brought on by Covid. We had higher revenues, but we also incurred higher costs due to more expensive shipping.
What challenges did you meet on your way to success? And how did you overcome them?
When I started, one of the main challenges was to get to know my customers. What products would they buy from me and why? Understanding that took time – I’m still learning. Initially, I thought the customer would like the things I liked. Instead, the customer gives you the answer you need and you must learn from it to run your business. It’s more of a learning experience than anything else. I have also learnt that my target customer is dynamic and she keeps changing and so should I.
Another challenge when I started was the lack of up-to-date information that would help me as a small business owner. For example, I needed household income data to understand what people would spend their money on beyond food and school fees. Back in 2019, I needed to understand if my target customer had money to spend on the things I wanted to sell, yet the most recent household income data I could easily access from the public domain was from 2015.
Similarly, there was no information on how much it cost to start a business. The official portal only had old data. You need that kind of information to be current and publicly accessible.
Another challenge I encountered was working through the mindset shift of changing from employee to business owner. I had to make an effort to really try to understand what I was getting into and know that every decision, and the direction of the business, rises and falls with me as the business owner. Not another department or person dealing with it, as was the case when I was an employee. It was on me. Pretty obvious, but it took some jolts to my system to make me come to terms with this.
Logistics was another challenge I faced. I had to find a way to move my products from my suppliers to my customers fast. Last year it became a major issue due to Covid, however my previous experience as a humanitarian worker helped a lot in managing my expectations and ensuring I could communicate the same to my customer.
A current challenge of mine is time management: I’m always on. This is also probably because my business is online. I’m trying to get some semblance of order between work and family, especially being a young business. I know this is critical and I’m working hard to manage it.
Did you encounter specific challenges because of your gender?
Personally, I haven’t encountered those challenges. I would call out gender bias if I came across it. This is maybe in part because of my work experience and the trainings I went through, which sensitised me to situations that would seem to point it. I had already faced a male-dominated environment, which meant that I knew how to manage certain dynamics, but I know this isn’t the case for many women. There are moments when, as a businesswoman, you need tough skills, for example in negotiating with suppliers who sell at a higher price just because you are a woman. I confront them directly. Some suppliers can be a bit arrogant but these are the minority.
I read the book A candid handbook for Women Doing Business in Kenya by Patricia Okelo and J.C Niala and it sort of prepped me for what I was getting into. I saw the statement the ‘motherhood penalty’ and ‘fatherhood bonus’ where mothers are seen as less committed and fathers are seen as more committed [after having a child]. Unfortunate but true. This is something that we as women will always deal with, but I believe opportunities exist to change this narrative, albeit in a small way, step by step.
What about the surrounding environment – how does Kenya support young entrepreneurs like you?
Kenya has set up programmes that target businesswomen and youth, I’ll admit I don’t know enough about the various kinds of government support and haven’t used any to provide insights. Connected to that, which I think is telling, I haven’t personally heard from specific individuals if they were successful in accessing funds from some of these initiatives. Maybe I need to talk to more people. One initiative I know of is called the AGPO-Access to Government Procurement, which means that 30% of the government contracts are awarded to youth, women and people with disabilities. This is something that is highlighted even at the point of registering a business so that if you are ever interested in participating in this, your business is already approved in part.
I do know Government is making an effort, but there will always be challenges preventing these benefits and initiatives from trickling down [to small business owners like me]. I recall reading on social media about a group of young guys who wanted to set up their business, following one of the government initiatives to help young entrepreneurs. They later came to find out they had to produce close to 20 different documents to get their product to market – and each one for a fee. The original idea was great, but they faced huge challenges. They even faced arrest for trying to start small. In the end, the group gave up on its idea. Youth want to be self-employed, but are constantly frustrated, so why even start a business? The barriers to entry in some sectors are so high, which defeats the purpose of even getting youth to be self-employed.
Another area that may be frustrating is the agricultural sector, for example. The majority of small-scale farmers are women and many of them don’t know how to bargain with the middlemen, partly because of the stereotype of being ‘subservient’ to men. These intermediaries end up buying low and selling high, pocketing the difference. The missed opportunity here is pegged to the fact that a woman who gets a good return on her inputs and is well supported spreads this benefit to her children and her family, and potentially also to other external individuals, through employment and by paying for goods and services.
I wish starting a business [in Kenya] were easier across the board, but there’s a lot of red tape. That being said, one area that I can mention where there’s been an improvement is the initial business set-up process, which is now available online via the ‘e-citizen portal’ https://www.ecitizen.go.ke/ . The portal gives you access to government services from one platform, which has been a big step for anyone wanting to start. I feel there is opportunity for growth in other areas that would allow more people, especially women and youth, to get into entrepreneurship.
Personally, I didn’t apply for government funding because I didn’t think I had a chance to access it. Instead, I used my own savings from my previous job. But what I have seen last year [due to Covid] has been lots of resources from the government – both funding and information. There’s been a huge uptake in learning opportunities, webinars with relevant government bodies, such as tax agencies. Private sector alliances have organised courses on how to run your business online. Whatsapp groups have sprung up to share information and updates on interesting topics, which benefit small business owners.
What would you do differently if you could start all over again?
I would test my ideas in small steps and invest less money in testing. At the time, I still had my salary coming in [from my salaried job] so even if I bought stock and it didn’t move, I would keep buying and probably not feel the pinch as much. Instead, I should have used that information to stop buying. I should have tested with less. I didn’t see at the time that I needed to go back to the drawing board.
Another useful lesson I would use now (connected to the previous one) is to fail fast and fail often. I could have arrived at this critical understanding sooner. Still, it was useful to understand that your mind also needs to change and not fear failure at the early stage because there is less at stake, hopefully. Having 100 shillings [roughly equivalent to 93 US cents] as an employee will be very different than having 100 shillings as a business owner. I should have kept a more watchful eye on my cash flow.
Yet, when you’re an outsider looking in, you can’t see things coming your way. For me, the critical thing was to get started and learn as you go. Once I was in, I started learning. It has been a steep, intriguing learning curve.
What role, if any, can international investors or donors play to support female entrepreneurship in Kenya?
Even though my customer now is very different from the customer I used to work for as a humanitarian, the fact is, I desire to serve in the best way possible. I do this by always making sure I’m aware of the dynamic environment I operate in, and by doing research and knowing how best to mitigate whatever challenges I may face. Being adaptable with the knowledge gained to deal with these challenges [is essential]. I wholly believe capacity-building is critical. I know this is a very NGO/organisation-focused term, but it still holds true outside that world. Knowing how to look for that funding and how to effectively use international funds as a beneficiary is important. Even in my case, with all the experience I had working with donors, I could have made better business decisions. The learning and knowledge are a very good thing investors and donors can share. Sometimes information available is very high level, but what we need is breaking this down in a manner that makes sense in the local context and can bring tangible benefits.
For example, artisans could learn how to package themselves, add value to their products or scale up their business. Learning how to think ahead, five-ten years from now, is important. So is having an investor who acts like a mentor and pushes you to take the next step. You just need small regular steps to get there. I can say this because of my own experience, but maybe for others the main issue is just seed funding. Even today, I don’t think I would qualify for government funding. What about other women in Kenya who don’t have personal funds? It’s no secret that women have a different trajectory compared to their male counterparts purely because of our gender.
I think humanitarian organisations can support female entrepreneurship by shifting the narrative. Helping break the stereotype that women can only do ‘certain kinds’ of businesses, for example in sales, customer care, administrative services, healthcare or hospitality-related services, as opposed to the manufacturing, real estate/construction and transport industries, which are more male-dominated. [Another way for humanitarian organisations to support businesswomen is to] appreciate that it takes more for mothers to deliver the same result than for their male counterparts and ensure they get the support they need. This will also bode well for future generations: boys and girls will dare to venture into areas that they desire to go into and not shy away because of the wrongly held view that a certain gender is the only one that can do the job.
Photo credit: thecommonwealth.org