I have just returned from Sharm el Sheikh in Egypt where I attended a Comesa Investment Forum.
Attending such forums and conferences often presents great opportunities to learn and make meaningful contacts. But they also open up one’s eyes as to the possibilities that exist for a country like ours.
Sharm el Sheikh is a beautiful city on the Sinai Peninsula, situated between Mt Sinai and the Red Sea. It is a city of paradoxes. While it has religious significance for Christians, it is also known to be one of the largest tourist destinations in the Arab world. It is famous for hosting international peace conferences and has been affectionately nicknamed ‘The city of peace’.
Interestingly, Sharm el Sheikh has not always been such a huge destination. In fact, we were told that the city started out as a fishing village, then became a port and started being formally developed into a tourist destination in 1982. Now they have international flights taking off every 15 minutes to cope with travel demands.
What stuck out in my mind however, was not its beauty and amazing developments; rather the comparative advantages of our coastal towns.
To start with, their natural terrain is desert rocky with a view of the blue sea. We on the other hand, have beautiful coastlines and a similar view of the sea. However, we have sandy beaches, excellent weather, coupled with a welcoming people and interesting cultures. In short, our coast is a venue to die for.
So why is it that our development of the coast has retarded while theirs takes off as if the whole city was moving on a speed boat? Why is that that foreign and domestic tourists no longer view and buy into our coastal product with awe such that we end up losing tourism revenues to the competition?
This is not only a problem for our country. It is challenge that most businesses have to contend with in time and if not properly dealt with, die off when the market becomes flooded.
I guess the question we should be asking ourselves is how to keep our product offering relevant with the changing times and demographic.
Our coastal towns, from Diani to Lamu can create better opportunities to build as good a tourist destination as Sharm el Sheikh or better.
I wish our leaders could visit these places with open minds and commitment to help develop Kenyan towns to international standards. Kenya has everything that anyone needs to build the most wonderful touristic centres and here I’m thinking as far as Bogoria and Lake Turkana. All we need is for leadership and resolve to make it happen.
For me, the key lesson has been to stay ahead of the game through innovation. As a business and a country, we must be able to anticipate the needs of our target population ahead of time. We must also be able to be tap into untapped markets with custom-made products that pique their interest.
For instance, a couple of years ago, global market players began to become environmentally conscious. Having foreseen the trend, our hotels at the coast should have created products and even rebuilt some of their amenities to match these expectations. Instead, we have seen rise of conservancies that promote eco-tourism (which is still ok) and have given robust competition to the hotel industry at the coast at their own peril.
Secondly, I would say that another prevailing problem is that of red-tape. While you may have an active Research and development team, their innovative streak may die off if they never witness the actualization of their dreams or if their ideas are implemented too late in the game to achieve the desired effect.
Whereas structures are effective tools for management, be careful that their undoing does not lead to the death of your company.
Thirdly, do not be afraid to reinvent yourself. Business is all about customer perception and if you can manage that perception while adapting to new trends, you can keep your customers hooked to your product.
Just because for example you started out as a manufacturer of food items, does not mean that you cannot venture into the non-food market. All your customers want to know is that you are capable of delivering on their expectations with the same or higher levels of attention and quality desired. Most of them will even support your new line of business because they have built a culture of trust and accountability with you.
Obviously, these are just a few key lessons that have helped me to remain relevant in my businesses under the threat of robust competition.
I believe that this spirit would also be useful to our government and private sector partners, if we are to transform our coast and businesses to small ‘Sharm el Sheikhs’.
When will Kenya wake up and create something for the world to admire and want to be part of? We will never solve our jobs crises unless we wake up and do it now.
With better conditions for the private sector, it is possible and yes, it can be done.