Becoming businesspeople: A study of the building livelihoods programme in northern Kenya

June 12th, 2020

This study examines how building livelihoods programmes, or financial graduation projects, shape who participants become as businesspeople. The study followed 51 participants of the FSD Kenya and CARE building livelihoods programme in Marsabit County, Northern Kenya from May 2016 to February 2019. It provides important insights into different identities associated with being a businessperson, how different types of businessperson develop and how they behave in varied ways, as well as factors that influence what type of businessperson a participant becomes. Key recommendations are provided for organisations implementing these types of programmes.

Key Findings

  • Three types of businessperson develop that shape behaviour in different ways

Participants become one of three types of businessperson: a collectivist, a hybrid, or an individualist. Collectivists focus on others and emphasise values of mutual aid and generosity with respect to who they are as businesspeople. They run business in a way that prioritises helping others over business continuity, profit, and savings. Individualists are self-focused and emphasise values such as independence and self-fulfilment with respect to who they are as businesspeople. They run business in a way that prioritises business continuity, profit, and savings over helping others. Hybrids try to balance both others and self and therefore hold a mix of both collectivist and individualist values with respect to who they are as businesspeople. They run business in a way where they try to juggle helping others and maintaining business and generating profit and savings.

  • Different types of businessperson develop through varied responses to identity conflict

Before learning about business, participants have existing identities that define who they are and shape their behaviour, which in this context includes a collectivist identity associated with expectations to help one another. Through programme training and mentoring and increased exposure to other businesspeople, participants learn what it means to be a businessperson, which includes objectives to maintain business and generate profit and savings. Participants experience conflict between the existing collectivist identity and the businessperson identity as they cannot simultaneously fulfil demands associated with both (e.g. share goods and generate profit). Their response, or combination of responses, to the identity conflict shapes what type of businessperson they become. Individuals who prioritise collectivist identity demands become a collectivist businessperson, whereas those who prioritise businessperson identity demands become an individualist businessperson. Alternatively, those who balance collectivist and individualist identity demands become a hybrid businessperson.

  • Who an individual becomes as a businessperson is regulated by other identities

Who a participant becomes as a businessperson is regulated by other identities that are important to them. Participants for whom the existing collectivist identity is strong and important prioritise collectivist identity demands and become a collectivist businessperson. Where the collectivist identity is less strong and important, participants become either a hybrid businessperson or an individualist businessperson depending on other identities. Those who believe they will be cursed if they do not help others in some way (curse believer identity) balance collectivist and businessperson identity demands and become a hybrid businessperson. Alternatively, those who believe in curses but do not believe they apply to business (adapted curse believer identity), or those who do not believe in curses at all because of their religion (religious believer identity), prioritise businessperson identity demands and become an individualist businessperson.

Individuals must manage resistance to new behaviours and expectations

When participants respond to the identity conflict by partially or fully prioritising businessperson identity demands, they introduce new behaviours and expectations of others that deviate from existing deep-rooted values, norms, and expectations associated with the collectivist identity. They therefore experience resistance within the community, which is likely to be exacerbated when only subsets of the community are educated on business concepts and what it means to be a businessperson. Participants must therefore actively work to increase understanding and acceptance of new behaviours and expectations, and ultimately change how others see them as a businessperson. They do this through explanation and enforcement, as well as by leveraging authority figures.


  • Think about programmes as a context for identity construction

Consider what types of identities you are helping participants construct. This is not limited to who they are as a businessperson, but also includes direct and indirect messages that shape other existing identities.

  • Be aware of existing identities and potential identity dynamics

Prior to implementing a programme, take time to understand what identities potential participants already have, what tensions may arise with the introduction or reinforcement of certain identities, and what existing identities may regulate participant behaviour.

  • Tailor programmes to address existing identities and potential identity dynamics

Where possible tailor programmes with existing identities and potential identity dynamics in mind. This will help minimise potential barriers related to identity conflict, resistance to new behaviours and expectations, and behaviour regulators.

  • Think about how to bring communities ‘up’ together

Consider community-level learning and community-based enterprises to limit the likelihood of resistance to new behaviours and expectations, in-group/out-group formation, and increased economic and human capital stratification.

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