Becoming Business People: What we can learn about development initiatives from Northern Kenya

March 17th, 2020

Laisamis is a settlement in Marsabit County in the Northern part of Kenya towards the Ethiopian border. With a population of approximately 2,700 people, it is the fifth largest urban centre in Marsabit County. Its small centre is comprised of two rows of cement and corrugated iron shops that sit along either side of the single tarmac road running through it, with clusters of dome-shaped stick huts scattered across the surrounding lowland scrub desert. The people in and around Laisamis are predominantly pastoralists, who traditionally have not seen their livestock as commodities and for whom business concepts such as profit and monetary savings are relatively new.

Over the past three years I have visited Laisamis and its neighbouring settlements of Logologo and Merille multiple times, studying 51 people across the three locations. I wanted to understand how perceptions and behaviours of individuals change over time as they learn about business through the FSD Kenya and CARE building livelihoods programme.

My study highlighted the key role that identity plays in individual behaviour change and the importance of considering identity in the design and implementation of development initiatives. Identity responds to the question of “Who am I?” How someone sees themselves, how others see them, and which identities they consider most important, shape how they think about and behave in their environment.

Development initiatives may catalyse new identities when they introduce new ideas, such as how to do business, how to save money, and how to take and repay loans. In essence, they provide new possibilities with respect to how beneficiaries can see themselves and how they can behave. This can occur through training, mentorship, examples of success, and even the questions beneficiaries are asked. In the words of one participant, for example,

“In this group I have gained knowledge on how to run businesses, on how to save, taking loans from the group and repaying and the group contributions… How to spend the money I get from the group, how to do businesses and make profits, spend some money to support the family and use the other to invest in business. It’s been different, we don’t spend like how our people used to.”

While it seems straightforward that training, and the introduction of new ways of being and behaving, lead to behaviour change, the picture is in fact more complex. For example, I found that new identities and ways of doing things, which were introduced to beneficiaries through the programme, came into conflict with their pre-existing identities. In the case of my study participants, they had a pre-existing collectivist identity associated with values of mutual aid and generosity and an expectation to share what you have with others. This pre-existing identity came into conflict with what they learned about being a businessperson, which includes business continuity and generation of profit and savings. In other words, they cannot both share what they have and sell those items for profit and save money at the same time. A programme participant named Sabdio articulates the conflict:

“I give food to the family that is needy that cannot afford to buy it, for free… It can make the business collapse; I re-invest the profit I got earlier in the business.”

Individuals respond to the identity conflict in different ways; either prioritising their pre-existing identity, prioritising their new identity, or trying to balance the two. How an individual responds shapes who they become as a businessperson and how they run their business, which can have implications with respect to potential for business sustainability and growth, as well as social support in the community. It can also lead to resistance from others in the community where new behaviours and expectations of others diverge from existing deep-rooted values, norms, and expectations. Ramaten, for example, explains the resistance she experienced when she started selling goods she used to share with others, and how she used explanation to increase understanding and acceptance:

“There was a problem in making them [community members] understand; they have been used to these free goods that you gave them, so when you start to sell them, they get irritated… I make them understand that these goods I am selling, I buy them with money, then with my own effort I carry them on my back to this place so as to bring service closer to you. So instead of us forcing [payment], why can’t we make sure the ways are smooth, you pay, I render service and sell goods to you.”

While the FSD/CARE programme in Laisamis and its neighbouring settlements may appear to be a unique context that feels relatively disconnected from the mainstream economy, it provides important lessons for development initiatives overall. My research on this programme demonstrates the value of thinking about development initiatives as contexts for identity construction, whether intentional or not, and considering what this may mean for existing identities and community relationships. For example:

  • What does it mean to be a businessperson?
  • What expectations and behaviours are associated with being a businessperson?
  • What are the different types of businessperson and how do their values and behaviours differ?
  • Is there a conflict between being a businessperson and being a valued member of the community? If so, why? And how can this be dealt with?

It is important to ask what kinds of messages programmes are giving in relation to existing and new identities; how might this lead to tension for beneficiaries themselves, and between beneficiaries and their wider communities – for instance in relation to changing gender norms, or collectivist versus individualist actions – and how can programmes be designed to help beneficiaries and communities to navigate these tensions? For instance, resistance within the community is likely to be exacerbated when only subsets of a community are included in initiatives and educated on new concepts. This points to a need to consider how to bring communities ‘up’ together, which may include community-level learning.

In conclusion, implementing a one-size-fits-all programme will not work in all contexts. It is therefore important to understand existing identities and, where possible, tailor development initiatives with existing identities and potential identity dynamics in mind.

Read more about the research, findings and associated recommendations in the detailed report.

Download full report (PDF)



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