Innovation at the small enterprise level

Moses with Muchiri, MtoPanga, Mombasa Oct 10th 2011

I’ve never been left with such a strong sense of enterprise and innovative thinking as I have now after this past week in Coastal Kenya. In fact I asked Muchiri if he’d been specifying some high standards for the introductions made to various cyber cafe owners or was it that we just happened upon the amazing crowd of people that we did.

What blew me away was simply their quality and resourcefulness – Moses for example, shown above talking to Muchiri in his little workspace at the back of his second cyber cafe, was a biochemist by training with a penchant for fine arts. He had a thriving business around creative services – graphic design, screen printing, photo touch ups etc right down printing your choice of photograph onto a ceramic mug for you. This was in addition to his two cyber cafes and computer training classes. He was the first to dismiss mobile phones as the perceived threat to cybers, instead pointing out that it was mobile broadband modems that were having the real impact along with easily available cheap desktops.

The common thread running through the success stories of growing sustainable small businesses seemed to be centered around a willingness to question the limitations of conventional services, spotting opportunities centered around this investment in hardware, software and access and a sense of changing trends observed among their customer base.

Moses' Dibarts ICT Village at Vintage Plaza, Mtopanga, Mombasa

Moses actually mentioned that latter – almost articulating the basic idea of doing user research and incorporating the feedback into his business strategy. He calls it the number of ‘No’s he gets versus the number of ‘Yes’s as one of the drivers for his choice of services to offer.

The ones who felt the slowing down of business were more likely to be those who imagined that simply setting up shop would bring in the cash flow or had let the changes go by passively without responding.  The good old days of customers waiting in a queue for a limited amount of time at the computer have gone for good.  What’s emerging in the frontlines are solutions like Robert‘s in Cannon Towers in downtown Mombasa.

Business centre set up by Robert, Mombasa, Kenya 12 Oct 2011

Noticing that many of his cyber cafe customers were walking in piles of documents they were struggling to manage in the tiny space available in the traditional cyber cafe layout, Robert realized that there was a business opportunity in catering to their needs. The majority of his business came from shipping agents and such like, most of whom would not even be based in Mombasa but in town only long enough to release their goods at the nearby port. He threw out the cramped cubicles and replaced them with spacious work stations – in effect, offering hot desks rentable by the day, week or month by the transient business workers.

Robert's signage on the street level of Cannon Towers, Mombasa, Kenya

Now, with fewer computers he generates more revenue at his business center than he does at his original cyber cafe still operating at a different, yet more high traffic location surrounded by educational institutions. Naturally, he already has his expansion plans in place even as the traditional cyber next door has declining revenues due to market forces.

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