This summer I travelled to Nakuru, Kenya, along with five other Cornell students to establish a start-up, self-sustaining catering service for a local disability center in desperate need of a steady source of income. In addition, by hiring persons with disabilities to cook low-cost, nutritious food, we hoped to help bring an end to the stigma associated with persons with disabilities in Kenya while improving the general health of some of the low-income population of the Nakuru community.
In many ways, doing business in a foreign country provided unique hurdles to our project. Some of us being born-and-raised Americans, we’d had a one-dimensional view on how business should be conducted. As we learned all too well, culture can play a big role in these regular business practices. Take haggling, for example. Every price we “mzungus” (the popular vernacular for any “white person”) would get for supplies of any sort would be grossly inflated. Only after intensive supplier searches and what we coined as a “sarcastic approach” to haggling [“Yeah so KSH 40 per kg seems a little steep here, so I’ll just mark you down for 30 sound good?” or the classic “No brother not mzungu prices real prices.” (which usually resulted in some laughter)], did we come to discern what seemed to be the going market rate for many of our supplies. Our chief negotiator, Tony Zhou ’19, seemed to have found a knack for the art of sarcastic haggling.
Another challenge we faced was the realization that our vision for the project was truly revolutionary for the Nakuru community. Many of our partners here contended that we should approach this project as a commercial venture to maximize profits for the disability center. This would entail minimizing costs by cooking food with charcoal (a serious detriment to worker health), not employing persons with disabilities (which was the primary social impetus behind our project), and selling high-end snacks to the upper business class (as opposed to selling low-cost, nutritious food to the factory workers and informal housing areas). This divergence in vision with much of our local support in Kenya was a major cause of the delay in the actual construction of our kitchen; however, we came to a middle ground where we would both carry out our original plan—hiring persons with disabilities, serving nutritious food to the informal housing areas and factory workers, and cooking with sustainable, healthy sources of energy— in addition to implementing a high-end snack service. The existing kitchen appliances made the addition of a high-end snack service relatively cheap.
This compromise was proof of the necessary role social entrepreneurial funding will have in the sustainable progression of developing countries. Without financially incentivizing entrepreneurs to think critically about the personal, social, and environmental implications of their decisions, they will most likely only focus on the “bottom line.” By institutionalizing practices that emphasize a “triple bottom line” approach, we could fundamentally change the course of development for some of these countries and minimize many of the negative externalities commonly associated with this process that we are all too familiar with back at home.
Aside from the business, our group bonded over some of the subtle wonders Kenya had to offer. We took a weekend trip up to Naivaisha, an approximately two-hour trip by “Mutatu” (essentially communal cabs here in Kenya), where we biked through the Naivasha national park and got to see up close a plethora of baboons, impala, giraffes, warthogs and, perhaps to the point of exhaustion, “pundamilia.”
Despite the countless hurdles our project faced, I’m happy to say that our kitchen is currently fully functional and earning a steady profit for the disability center. We hired three persons with disabilities as assistant cooks—Joice, Millicent, and Beth—and they are currently providing a daily lunch service for over 300 people throughout the Nakuru community. None of this would have been possible without the support of the ILR School and the Tang travel grant award, for which I and many members of the Nakuru community will be forever grateful.